Monthly Archives: April 2011

One Piece Dome Tour

Golden week has finally begun. As I have the inherent tendency to feel too comfortable just staying at home letting days pass by, I’ve decided to force myself to do something worth blogging about each day during the following 10 days. That will not guarantee blog posts, only that I will get out of the house and find something more meaningful to do than sitting on a chair.

The schedule for today had been pre-planned at least one day beforehand, which is a rare occurrence in my curriculum. Usually I just go somewhere on a whim, or even more often, I don’t. But a couple days ago I came across an advertisement poster in the metro about One Piece having some kind of “Dome Tour” around Japan during this spring, and the Tokyo dates happened to coincide with Golden Week. My Kimeta©-decision was as follows: If I can manage to use the 7-11 ticket vending machine to buy myself an entry pass (¥3000 in advance, ¥3500 at the venue), I’ll go. So last night I courageously ventured into the world of konbini vending machines for the first time since buying Ghibli Museum tickets at Lawson in early 2009. Although the machine needed my name and phone number for no apparent reason, I managed to receive one entry ticket without too much hassle. The receipt of such a token immediately manifested on my face through forming a huge grin that lasted overnight.

Artistic rendition

As the Dome Tour was open from 10 to 18, I had originally planned to be there as soon as it opened. Unfortunately, due to… krhm… snooze button related issues I was belated and only arrived to the premises at around 11. Once again, I had completely underestimated the enthusiasm the Japanese exhibit towards queuing. Not only do they not seem to mind, it’s as if they genuinely enjoy it. The line to the entrance was easily over a kilometer long, going towards the next metro station before turning back in front of a baseball court and zigzagging around the dome a few times.

*chuckles in disbelief*

It took me roughly one and a half hours from my arrival at the dome to actually get in the dome. I also managed to enjoy a couple of spontaneous bursts of laughter when realizing that the queue was still going to continue through one more street corner. Obviously, queuing was a fundamental part of the experience. Luckily I had one volume of Tenjho Tenge with me so I was able to enjoy gratuitous violence, nudity and unintelligible kanji during the long downtime instead of falling into the depths of tedium. One would think the organizers of such a huge event could be just slightly more prepared for this kind of attendance, especially considering there were lots of space inside the dome upon entering. Maybe open more than one entrance gate you fucks!

Going up the stairs and going down the stairs and going up the stairs and going down the stairs and going up the sideways stairs.

Once inside, I reacquired my earlier permagrin. Like all visitors, I also received a Wanted Newspaper with some information on what was to be found at the event, and promptly proceeded forward towards the main exhibition hall.

Toilet signs had been redesigned for the occasion, and instead of toilet jazz, the speakers inside were playing Binks' Sake

Although it was apparent that the entire event was meticulously well prepared in order to draw a huge amount of money from the people entering, I was happily willing to fall prey to that plan. The One Piece Dome Tour also marked the first time I’ve really longed for a better camera, as my poor N95 had no way to immortalize all the greatness that was present in front of my eyes. Then again, nothing could accurately depict that. You just had to be there.

Laboon!

The unfolding of the plot in the main area is better explained in this post, so I will, instead, comment on the show that some of the series’ seiyuu performed in the afternoon and post all of my low-quality pictures. Despite none of the main cast being present at the show, the actors voicing Bon Clay, Jinbei and the venerable Den Den Mushi were able to send some chills down my spine as well as produce a few laughs. I clearly haven’t watched the series enough as I initially failed to recognize Jinbei’s voice. But then again, the book is always better. Visitors were also offered the possibility to rent Zoro or Sanji voice guides for the tour for ¥2000, something which I rapidly discarded as a worthless ripoff.

*purupuru purupuru*

Before leaving the dome I did eventually buy a straw hat pirates flag as an everlasting symbol for future Sebaattori LAN parties as well as a box of overpriced “treasure chocolates” for no reason whatsoever. After leaving the main exhibition area that was the dome, I also had a vague attempt at entering the nearby Prism Hall where the bigger merchandise shop was located, but I was thwarted at the entrance by a queue that once again would most likely have lasted for over an hour.

I am a consumer whore

This marks the end of Grand Line News. The plan for tomorrow is to wake up at 5 in the morning and go straight to the Tsukiji Fish Market to queue for one of the best (and freshest) sushi sets in the world. I wouldn’t hold my breath for success, though.

-Antti

Defective Buyer’s Goggles

VR

Lately I traveled to Turku and back by train. To my astonishment, the trains were late only by roughly 5 minutes. I suppose that is an acceptable performance on a warm, sunny Easter afternoon. Anyway, what I did not agree with is the reason (or lack thereof) why it costs more to take the Pendolino train instead of the Intercity 2 train. Normally the Pendolino would be a bit faster (maybe 5 minutes on this distance) so the difference in price (like 15% more) would be somewhat acceptable, but now the online reservation system (which still cannot be used during the night) suggested that the traveling time would be the same no matter which train I took. Great.

Unfortunately I did not want to wait for at least two hours before the next cheaper train comes so I decided to hop on the more expensive alternative. So what was I paying for? My guess is that because the two types of trains are equally fast, one of them costs more. Or maybe I pay more to have the exquisite on-board WLAN capabilities and no possibility to transport a bike at my disposal. Sweet.

It gets better with differing regional tickets from long range tickets. To be honest, I do not even know if it is possible to buy a single ticket from Turku to the nearest train station to where I live (update: you can). If not, I have to buy another ticket, the regional one, which may cost quite a bit compared to the ticket I already had. Even though, looking at the trip on a map, I might have just passed the station I was going to. Ah, if only we were in Japan where it usually only matters where you get on and where you get off. That way passing one station and then going back would not result in a penalty. Sounds fair, right?

Bubble Bobble 2

One of my all-time co-operative favourites, Bubble Bobble, finally came a while ago to Xbox 360 as an arcade game. Of course, I bought the game, after reading a couple of assuring reviews saying that the same good old playability was still there and that the new version merely had new graphics, maybe extra music and perhaps some new and innovative gaming modes. If anything, I hoped the game to be like the good old versions of NES and Amiga.

However, what the reviews did not say (or pretty much lied about) is that the playability is nothing like it used to be. How can they even claim that? Not even having a million monkeys and enough time would make the game playable in any commonly understood way to understand the definition of playable. To be blunt, I would have rather burnt the money.

DRM

Ah, the wonderful ventures of software companies and Digital Rights Management. The idea is good (no piracy), but unattainable in real life: DRM with software usually just ends up bugging the Average Joe. Maybe the only way to get rid of this is to make it easier (users are lazy) to actually buy the product instead of using one’s favourite BitTorrent client and service to get it. Perhaps application stores that are tied to the operation system will provide an answer to this dilemma.

Now that Sony has some trouble with their Playstation Network, it seems that some people even have trouble playing their games offline on their own consoles. And that is partly due to excessive DRM systems. Not to mention Sony’s earlier achievements in making people angry. Anyone remember Sony’s rootkit-based protection system on some of their CD albums? The system was not only illegal but it also spawned new malware to abuse the holes left by the rootkit.

The irony is that pirates play the games and listen to the albums without ever noticing such minor caveats.

I probably need to start to wear my set of Imagination Goggles +6 to understand the full logic behind these business decisions. Or maybe they could ask me or any other possible customer next time? I know, it is doubtful, but I could gently point them in the better direction.

- Joona

Happiness Resule

Lesson learned: One should never buy second-hand shoes. About a month ago I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon cycling to and around Kichijoji looking to buy some sneakers. The location was originally chosen because there was an Oshman’s next to the station, which I knew carried some items of interest. Instead, I got lost on the way – what a fucking surprise – and ended up going to a nearby Mode Off. Those who have read previous entries about Book Off should be able to sense a pattern here.

I think often of these lines, both when I am glad. I think of them when I am sad, because their rhythm teaches me that the timeless.

Besides enjoying some of the best Engrish pieces in a while, I also managed to find second-hand basketball shoes that a) fit me like a… glove? and b) only cost ¥1500. In retrospect, the price alone should have risen some suspicions on my part, but I was too naive and desperate to think clearly: my sports shoe dilemma had finally been solved and for only a fraction of the expected price. Turned out later that the problem persisted, and as an additional lesson I learned that second-hand shoes vendors are about as dangerous as second-hand car salesmen, though to a lesser financial degree.

I went on a trial run the very same evening to test how the shoes felt and how my right knee responded to strain. I got as far as a kilometer from the apartment before the increasing pain in my knee forced me to withdraw. During the depressing walk home, I realized that the feeling I was experiencing did not quite adhere to the image I had about what walking should normally feel like. It literally felt like bits of me were falling off with each step, which was partly true. The shoes, while having shown no issues when tested in the store or for the first kilometer of running, had begun disintegrating rapidly. I made a damage assessment at home and could hardly contain my disappointment when the results of my small excursion clearly indicated both that running is still a no-go and that I payed ¥1500 for the privilege of throwing a pair of old Nikes in the trash, the collection times of which are abhorrent. The previous sentence makes perfect sense. Read it again.

"What you've done is a perfect example of shoe... FRAUD?"

Two weeks after the incident I returned to Kichijoji, walked straight into Oshman’s and bought the Vibram FiveFingers I had been aching to try ever since a friend at Gaidai had run the Nara Daibutsu Marathon with that specific type of shoe. I was also projecting unrealistic expectations towards the FiveFingers putting less stress on my knee since they require a different, more natural (?) running technique.

Promotional picture. Luckily the colors are very neutral and fit_any_kind of clothing.

Until today I had only used them for walking and cycling. In these two areas, they definitely get the job done. Also people tend to stare at my feet now, which is an upgrade (or actually downgrade) from them staring at my face all day long. This morning marked the moment when I finally gathered my courage and embarked on a new test run. It ended up putting some extra effort on my leg muscles not only because I hadn’t run in four months but also because it’s not really possible to step heel first when wearing these things due to a lack of cushioning. However, I did survive the ordeal and rewarded myself with a nice bowl of tonkotsu ramen afterwards. Compared to the rubbish from Mode Off, I’ve been really satisfied with these shoes, for now. The only thing I’m concerned with is their lifespan. When used almost daily, I wonder how long these expensive footgloves can actually last.

-Antti

La complainte de l’heure de pointe

Cycling produces so many stories daily that it would kill me to report them all, but what happened on Thursday alone caused me to generate enough bile to be worth mentioning. It appears that unified regional elections are coming up in Japan, something which can no longer be ignored anywhere when traveling around. This is due to the fact that Japanese live in a world torn in two: In the world of balance nobody says a thing, and in the world of ruin all communication consists of yells and grunts. The vans that drive around the city with loudspeakers repeating the name of their supported political candidate forever are part of the fucking world of ruin.

My day started on a really bad note when I got stuck in traffic behind a slow-driving bullshit-spouting van just before arriving at work. I know that after what happened in Finland a week ago it’s just a pot and kettle issue but is there seriously any merit in campaigning by only raising awareness of a candidate’s name? Especially when the method raises irritation levels accordingly. “Ooh, a name! Sounds great! I’ll vote for that name!”

The part that completely destroyed me and almost made me fall of my bike was when I ran into three campaign assistants in my neighborhood later in the evening. Again, their sole purpose was to wave, smile, and repeat the name of their candidate in keigo while riding bikes. Only, this time, there was nobody out to hear them, which made into a spectacular performance in futility.

弱肉強食

I have alluded before to the fact that cyclists are essentially above the law in Japan, not entirely unlike Steven Seagal is in his movies. Traffic lights don’t apply to cyclists, and neither do car lanes. The pavement is essentially a no man’s land where survival of the fittest is the reigning life philosophy. While I take advantage of these characteristics all the time, I do take great pride in seeing where I’m going. I can’t stress how important this is. Many a day have I had the urge to yell at people unable to leave their goddamn mobile phones alone while cycling and who consequently swirl wildly in every direction.

Today, there was a different type of retard who just suddenly swerved from the pavement to the car lane without looking and almost run into me. The guy didn’t bother turning his head to see if there was someone coming from behind and, in addition, he had noise-cancelling earphones on. What the fuck? There are two senses needed to know what happens around you when riding a bike, vision and hearing. If you can’t bother using the former and just arbitrarily cancel the other, I am required, by law, to run you over. Why do people have to behave like tools?

Luckily, one cyclist managed to provide me with entertainment as well. As I was cycling home from my weekly Muteppou ramen dinner, I was overtaken by a policeman who was hauling ass on his bike. It was dark so obviously no front light – which is required by law – was needed. Clearly this wasn’t standard procedure, as only seconds later he burst into ongoing traffic and ran through a red light just to prove my earlier point. What I realized two minutes later was that he had caught up with a car and was reprimanding the driver about something or other. It didn’t really occur to me to pull over and ask for details.

Let’s recapitulate: He drove at the maximum speed his legs allowed with no protection or lights while breaking every imaginable traffic law within the time span, only to catch up with someone who had presumably committed a minor infraction. That’s either an incredible expression of diligence or a ridiculous attempt to exert authority. I’ll never know which, but in any case I couldn’t contain my laughter for a good while afterwards.

Update: JapanProbe also posted an article that proves I’m not alone with my opinion on the campaigning methods of Japanese politicians. One of the finest examples of drunken gaijin behavior.

-Antti

Bad User Experiences

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment” – from Wikipedia’s Fear, uncertainty and doubt article

Ever tried searching from a big company’s web site using their own search? The closest comparison I can come up with is smearing your hands with poo and wondering why no one comes to shake hands with you. Usually the results of such shameful endeavors are either non-existent or ridiculous at best.

Recently there has been quite a bit of trouble with the hosting company that provides Sebaattori with its server framework and WordPress platform. Last week there were some 503 server errors due to broken firewall settings on the host’s part (or so they informed us). In addition, today I encountered a database connection drop when I was trying to write my post. Unfortunately it seems that cheap hosting equals problems with such simple requirements as performance, reliability and availability.

Uncertainty in dealing with IT systems is, well, one of the top sources for my daily frustration. In my case the uncertainty is not always related to my ability (nor inability) to use the system but instead to the system’s qualifications to properly serve my needs. For example, I find it very annoying having to ctrl + copy this text (that I am typing right now) every now and then to the clipboard and paste it to my favourite text editor. Why? Because I cannot trust the connection/computer/web browser combination to stay alive long enough for me to finish typing, post everything back and not lose anything while doing this.

More problems arise when multiple users are munching and lurking around in the system at the same time, looking for creative new ways to force the poor software architecture to a standstill. Multiple users tend to do their stuff at the same time, perhaps even in the same place and whilst working on the same items. From a system designer’s standpoint that is, if not the worst-case scenario, pretty close to being just that. What if the users open, modify and save one resource at the same time? There is no simple right answer to how to handle this. Should we lock the resource so that only one may write and others read? Or maybe we should do like Google Docs: allow multiple users to work on the same resource and keep all changes. In the ideal case we might not even give access to non-tech-savvy users at all (or we could remove access rights from annoying users who try to break the system’s rules).

It is really easy to spot not only badly designed and annoying software products but also systems where it seems that their basic design principles are just plain wrong. Cumbersome, counterintuitive systems (with corporate policy written all over them) make me ponder the real reasons for their seemingly meaningless existence. I highly doubt that it is in the best interests of any company to purposefully make it harder for their employees to do anything meaningful with their time at work. Despite the large amount of bureaucracy involved in (and mostly even required) keeping a company running, people should still be able to be more productive than ever before. And IT systems, especially, should be there to help management fight these problems and facilitate end user access to shared resources.

IT industry should always be based on expectations of working systems. I totally agree with that goal and it would be wonderful for it to be the status quo. As long as the system is reasonably fast, is each time available when I need it and does what I need it to do in an understandable manner, I will be fairly satisfied and I will not have much to complain about. In the end, it all comes down to some very basic questions in software development: user needs, requirements and specifications. If these can be fulfilled effectively in a manner that makes the users want to use the software, we have come a long way. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

In case you are interested, try comparing any major webpage (or software suite) against Nielsen’s heuristics. The results can be quite frightening – and those are just the very basics of any user experience. Communication over the web fails far too often.

- Joona

PS. An example of a badly designed site I came across earlier today:

Futurecity.fi – Helsinki WDC (World Design Capital) 2012 stamp suggestions open for voting. The page looks cool, but from a simple usability standpoint it is unbearable. The site loads the next 25 pictures (out of over 1400) each time you scroll to the end of the page with no option to load all of them at once. Of course, there is no way to search for a single suggestion. In addition, there is no opportunity to link to just one work of art (preferably with voting link). Moreover, I could not even find a link to the English version of the site. World has to stand for something in WDC, right?

Suddenly, Ramen – Part Deux

The world of ramen should be a nice place, so in order to make up for lashing out last time I’ll focus this post on praising a couple of my favourite noodly entrepots. Well, only one, really.

Muteppou was an incredible find. I stumbled upon it during my not-so-short exile in Osaka. Not physically, though, I found it on Google Maps, which isn’t quite as romantic. Yet little did that change the ultimate outcome of my first visit, which led me to falling in love with the place. After initially locating the venue, I moseyed there only to find a queue of people standing in the street for no apparent reason. I walked past a few times looking like an idiot just to make sure they were doing the exact thing I was frightened of, queuing for my noodles. That was not a euphemism, by the way. I was more curious than hungry at the time so I queued for half an hour and eventually enjoyed slurping the best noodles in my life so far. I left the premises stuffed, burpy and wondering if I would ever feel like going there again. Then I repeated the procedure on the following day. And the day after that.

かため、こってり、ねぎおおめ

My visits to the Muteppou in Osaka were all quite interesting. At the time I had just began getting over my flu, and therefore my nose was slightly less clogged up each day, leading me to gradually get a better taste every visit before eventually going back to Tokyo.

It’s also quite ridiculous that there is exactly one Muteppou in Osaka and one in Tokyo. The one in Osaka was next to my hotel in Nipponbashi, and the one in Tokyo is on the way home from work, in Egota. These cities can’t really be classified as the smallest in the world, either. It’s like winning the tonkotsu-lottery. Twice. I know if something like that did exist, I’d be the first – and probably only – one to participate.

Muteppou offers a tonkotsu broth that is, for lack of a better word, rich. This is partly explained by the restaurant using 300 kilograms of meaty pork bones for broth each day. As you sit at the counter you can observe the huge vats of raw pork bones in their kitchen for kicks. The result of this grotesque amount of bones is that the broth at Muteppou is so thick and rich that it’s far closer to gravy in consistency than to standard ramen broth. And this is not an exaggeration but an objective observation.

The stores function in exactly the same way in both locations. There is a vending machine at the entrance for picking the desired meal. Once you have ticket in hand to submit for your favorite noodle feast you will be asked a question in three parts. The inquiry goes “how would you like it?” and refers to the chewyness of the noodles (katame = al dente / normal / yawarakame = overcooked), the richness of the broth (kotteri = rich / normal / assari = bland) and the amount of spring onions you want thrown in. Because apparently the broth isn’t meaty and greasy enough as is, they also throw some pork back fat on the top for good measure. Exquisite. I’ve found heaven, too bad there’s a queue.

Close-up of spring onions and fat at Egota. Actual noodles are well hidden underneath

My personal favorite and coincidentally the only one I’ve ever tried, the chashuu tonkotsu ramen, costs ¥900 in Osaka and ¥1000 in Tokyo. It includes a large bowl of  meaty pork bone broth, around 12 slices of chashuu (they count them, not me) and a normal serving of noodles. Kaedama (extra serving of noodles) cost ¥100 per serving, or ¥150 with some added chashuu. The taste is exactly the same at both shops, and the advantage of Tokyo is that until now I have not yet encountered a real queue.

In addition, one of the ten-ins at Egota is slightly too enthusiastic and wants to make sure that the gaijin curiosity fully enjoys his meal. He repeats the performance with every customer to some extent, but he actually follows me out in the street every time to ask for feedback on how the broth tasted on that specific visit. I guess the remote location doesn’t really attract foreigners, especially in this day and time. He also seemed quite impressed at my limited knowledge in famous tonkotsu ramen shops as well as flattered by my repetitive praise of their noodles. It would be more difficult for me not to praise them. It is by far the best noodle broth combination I have eaten anywhere. The shop clerk actually asked me if I’m not beginning to get tired of the taste. I retorted that two visits a week is perfect. I can hardly wait for tomorrow.

Ramen.

-Antti

Japan and Finland, Worlds Apart

The title is not a reference to the British boyband of the 90s, just to be clear.

I had long wanted to rant a bit about language education in Japan, and the Japan Blog Matsuri provided me with a great excuse to do that. I’m not a native English speaker myself, and although I’ve been bombarded by foreign languages from a very young age, I can still somewhat relate to the difficulties the Japanese encounter when learning English, currently their most important foreign language.



There is a pretty stark contrast to language education and learning between Japan and Finland. Although Japan employs a variety of native English speakers as teachers, some of which operate on very different bases, the system as a whole, from what I’ve seen, is still in a lamentable state. I spent one academic year at the Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka studying Japanese. That’s not the point here, though. One local I befriended at the time told me that Kansai Gaidai was a great school for foreigners, much less so for the Japanese. Judging from the results, this statement proved very true.

A large amount of the Japanese graduating from Gaidai work hard for the purpose of becoming English teachers for Japanese kids. The university also boasts the highest amount of foreign student throughout Japan, somewhere around 500 people during an academic year, whilst also encouraging intercultural and interlinguistic interaction very vividly. Most of the students keen on becoming teachers had spent at least a year abroad in an English speaking country and had been studying the language since primary school.

Open Campus Day at Gaidai, Finnish Booth

Despite all this, the Japanese students graduating from Gaidai with a level of English sufficient for speaking properly, let alone teaching it, were about as numerous as my posts which omit the word fuck. Written grammar was flawed, spoken output stuttering and lacked in confidence. I won’t even go into the puronanshieeshon part. Clearly the problem is deep, and very topical; some international firms such as Rakuten are already moving towards making English the company’s official language by the end of 2012.

In Europe, language education, at least in schools I have frequented, has been performed by extremely competent people. This not only means that they don’t make shameful grammatical mistakes, but also that they possess a natural native English accent (often Oxford or General American English). It would seem logical that hearing the right sounds would make it easier for kids to reproduce the right sounds. Furthermore, speaking up and having conversations are both encouraged in Finnish schools from a young age.

In Japan, the standard persists that homeroom teachers are responsible for teaching English at the primary school level. Arguably, this would be the most important time for Japanese children to develop an affinity for speaking a foreign language correctly. The homeroom teachers themselves have admitted to not being confident in their English teaching and feeling burdened by the task to an extent where they would rather see someone specialized take care of it.

Suddenly, Engrish! (Okinawa, March 2009)

Considering Japan has an incredible amount of private English schools and English conversation schools aimed at all ages populated by native speakers as teachers, I find it weird that standard schools are not able to recruit that kind of specific talent. There is a huge supply of inexperienced native English teachers willing to come to Japan to perform the tasks that homeroom teachers would prefer to avoid, as shown by the pool of people that get cut from the JET programme every year. Due to current teachers being incompetent, they do not have the necessary tools to engage the children in interactive learning, and the revolutionary system of “repeat after me with the same horrendous accent” is a common and favored approach.

Naturally, the completely differing writing system adds a handicap that is not possible for me to entirely fathom. Yet, I do see the need to diminish or completely remove katakana-based phonetics from the English teaching system at a relatively early phase. One highly learned Gaidai student whom I talked to a few years ago admitted to reading the katakana versions of songs when singing English karaoke. Et tu, Brute? A 20-year-old English major? I fell into a coma at that moment. How are students ever supposed to learn proper pronunciation if they keep on using a writing system that is suited for English output about as much as a gaijin is suited to become a Shinto priest.

Japan faces a great challenge in trying to upgrade the general English proficiency of the workforce at the rate that international markets and local companies require. One thing is certain, though. Adult education and English conversation cafes are not the answer in the long run. Something has to be done about the way children are educated.

-Antti

P.S. Thanks for hosting the April 2011 Japan Blog Matsuri go to NihongoUp

Current Gaming in Espoo

Lost Planet 2, Uncharted 2, God of War 3 and Batman: AA

 

What wonderful weather for gaming! – Dan Bull

Dan Bull is close to the core truth about gaming. And by the way, if you have not seen the YouTube flick, check it out here: Dan Bull – Generation Gaming. I recommend listening to the song even for you non-gamers as the song’s rhymes are fairly well thought-out. And if you still decide not to listen to it, then it is your loss.

On a side note, I have been purchasing a lot of my console games from TheHut.com. It would not really matter which online store I use, but TheHut has proven to offer fairly good prices and I have not experienced much trouble dealing with them. Last week I bought three new games (cheap ones, though) as I received a 10%-off discount code from said store. They sure know their marketing mix in my case. However, I find it astonishing how every game is cheaper to buy from abroad. Hell, I could even fly there myself, buy the games, fly back to Finland and still get a profit. Alright, it is not that bad with the newest games that have not yet hit their first round of discounts. Some Finnish stores based in the tax-exempt wonderland of Åland offer fair prices on such upcoming titles as Deus Ex 3 and Gears of War 3. Finally!

Anyway, after reading Antti’s message on Twitter regarding Kotaku’s article I could not help but agree with Leigh Alexander. Only a handful of the games I have played during the past 5 years have been as absorbing as, let’s say the Original Doom and its many addons (or WADs). What is especially inspiring about this is that lately (or rather, most of this week) I have been playing the newish Batman: Arkham Asylum (with 3D goggles and everything). In fact I got the game on Sunday last week but I did not begin to play it until Monday evening. I knew even before I started the game that it would probably be a bit bad idea to set forth on my journey through Gotham before weekend. Not that the game is bad or anything – it is just a tiny bit too addicting.

Now, on the third day after beginning my trip to Joker’s twisted humor and crazy plans, I have completed 46% of the content of the game. To my surprise, the game looks wonderful (even if it is a console game and definitely not 1080p) and the cartoon-based world feels quite real indeed. The sound environment is excellent as well. Playing with my headphones on in a dimly lit room I could almost smell being inside the Asylum with the inmates. No reason to worry though – Batman is not your average guy when it comes to prevalence in martial arts and being an awesome detective (quite like being a two-in-one Conan all by himself). I am beginning to learn to use his constant stream of bullet time melee attacks and slowdowns to down a dozen of foes at the same time. As an option, I can sneak up on them goonies and take them to the ground with a swift strike from the above. Batman even has his own set of gadgets and a remote hacking tool. Now how cool is that?

This is my first time experiencing 3D (even though it is merely based on colored lenses) in a current-generation console game. My initial impression was quite simply “meh“: the effect is there, but it does not, at least in its current implementation, bring much more to the game. Let me elaborate on that. I have no doubt that on currently-sold televisions the 3D effect can be quite a lot better than this mimicking with fancy cardboard glasses and plastic lenses. As those second-generation TV sets have been made 3D performance in mind. My 5-year-old Sony rear projection TV is not exactly state-of-the-art in this time and age. Anyway, the implementation being what it is, the only resultant effect is a headache after an hour’s playing. Perhaps after a few iterations (and actually using current technology) this just might work. Right now, the effect is too slim to trade off color balance and brightness, among other things.

To sum it up, I have really enjoyed my stay on the penitentiary island so far. Joker’s whacky announcements remind me in a good way about System Shock 2‘s (now that is another excellent game deserving its very own post) sweet, but insane, Shodan and her riddles. In addition, the built-in lore about Batman comics is worth reading and all those in-game collectables keep me going for hours without noticing the passing of time. And the story is not bad at all itself. Now that is what I call quality gaming!

- Joona

Retrogaming in Osaka

Akiba in the East, ‘Ponbashi in the West (東のアキバ西のポンバシ)

Japan is the Xanadu for retro gamers, especially those who are keen on finding older Japanese consoles in their natural habitat and playing games in an undecipherable language. Older video games can be found in Japan in almost any independent game store, recycle store or video rental store as well as sold by established chains such as book off and hard off. ‘Who would dare ask for more’ I hear you ask? The piece de résistance of places such as Akihabara in Tokyo and Nipponbashi in Osaka is the concentrated nature of facilities offering games from the good old days. During my pilgrimages I have spent hours and hours roaming the neon-lit streets of Akihabara, yet my true home ultimately lies just outside of exit 1-B of the Ebisucho station far to the west.

In the following post, I will unravel some of the mysteries that surround the internationally much less known nerd heaven that is Nipponbashi, also known known as Den Den Town.

Man, it’s good to be a nerd these days

While the history and general information about the Nipponbashi area can be read on Wikipedia or Den Den Town’s own Japanese homepage, what I will offer here is a more pragmatic approach to those who wish to plunge into the wonderful world of Japanese Retro Games in the area. After extensive research and several dozen visits, I have delimited the main retro gaming core within a rather small area on the Sakaisuji Avenue, which comprises the majority of the video game offering of Den Den Town. Compared to all the stores selling computer hardware, furniture, anime, comics, music, movies not to mention porn, places with a reasonable offering of older generation video games are actually few and far between. The key is to find them.

Handheld consoles are something I have never owned and therefore have close to no knowledge or interest in the matter. Thus, I will not mention that specific area of gaming here. For those interested, the amount of handheld products in the following stores is always proportional to the amount of normal ones.

Looking at Sakaisuji Avenue facing north. The fun begins after passing Yoshinoya on the left.

I do believe, and certainly hope, that most people looking for old video games do not constantly want to find themselves surrounded by Japanese genitalia-pixelating smut, and for this purpose I have gathered the locations of the five main stores to check when looking for some old classics. All of these lie on the west side of the Sakaisuji Avenue, within a couple hundred meters of each other, as can be seen on the map below.


View Retro Avenue in a larger map

By far the best way to reach the mother lode is by taking the Sakaisuji Metro Line and exiting it at Ebisucho station, exit 1-B. The entrance to Super Potato is situated roughly 2 meters to the right of the exit. This strategy has allowed even someone with no sense of direction or spatial memory such as myself to arrive at the premises without getting lost. Alternatively, Den Den town can be reached by walking North from Shin-Imamiya JR station or South from Nipponbashi Metro station for those who enjoy longer walks or want to check out other stores on the way.

Twin Emperors

In Osaka, there exist two institutions that are almost completely dedicated to the promotion and sales of retro gaming memorabilia. Game Tanteidan and Super Potato Seven take the idea far enough to build their entire business plans around selling old videogames to nostalgic nerds. In accordance with those plans, the atmosphere in these stores is heavily dependent on 8-bit music and consoles set on autoplay.

Anything you want $ your soul.

Super potato is an institution that any self-respecting gamer coming to Japan will be able to name. The franchise has a dozen of stores throughout the country, out of which at least the Super Potato Seven in Nipponbashi and Super Potato Retro-kan in Akihabara are mainly focused on older consoles and titles.

Less well known but very prominent in the Osaka gaming scene, Game Tanteidan is an independent player located roughly 50 meters from its aforementioned Den Den Town competitor. These two stores will easily supply anyone with the bulk of whatever they need gamingwise, while other stores on the subsequent list are relevant mostly due to the higher probability of finding more common games at lower prices. Or abundant games for practically no money whatsoever.


Name: ゲーム探偵団 (Game Tanteidan)
Adress: 大阪府大阪市浪速区日本橋5丁目12
Phone: 06-6636-8175
Website: tanteidan.cc
Twitter: game_tanteidan

During opening hours, the entrance to Tanteidan is impossible to miss. Nevermind the huge Post-it Mario on the wall and six TV-sets showing autoplay demos of old favorites in a never ending loop, the sheer 8-bit energy emanating from the place is enough to draw the interest of passers-by.

Once inside, a whole new world opens. The floor and walls are covered in old posters, news articles and screenshots, all hovering around the same general topic. Relics ranging from R.O.B.s to Megaman plushies are hanging from the ceiling as ears soon begin to tingle from the soundchip-produced bliss.

Possibly the single best retro-cave currently, even surpassing the legendary Super Potato, Game Tanteidan offers a large variety of everything ancient. The first floor is heavily focused on the 3rd, 4th and 5th generations of console gaming. This includes games for all major consoles by Nintendo (Famicom, Famicom Disk System, Super Famicom, Nintendo 64, GameCube) and Sega (SG-1000, Mark III / Master System, MegaDrive, Saturn, Dreamcast) as well as less popular competitors Neo-Geo, PC-Engine and 3DO.

The rarest and most expensive treasures are safely behind glass doors next to the cashier. On the opposite side, a wide range of consoles and peripherals from the Neo-Geo to the Famicom Disk System are sitting on a shelf. Another couple of adjacent shelves are dedicated to official and less official guidebooks and obsolete game journalism.

Famicom, loose on the left, boxed on the right, nerd straight ahead

The shelves on the ground floor form three corridors. As a rough explanation, SFC and N64 titles are on the left, Sega titles from the SG-1000 to the Dreamcast as well as Neo-Geo and PC-Engine titles are in the middle, and Famicom and FDS titles are on the right. The supply should satisfy even the most adamant of collectors.

The second floor is more confusing due to a lack of focus. While it offers the largest inventory of MSX computers and games I have seen anywhere so far, another wall is covered with baseball cards, breaking the illusion. One shelf is filled with imported XBOX 360 games, another is occupied by game music soundtracks and there are a variety of Game & Watch handhelds in a glass display case. A coin-operated monster rally-pinball something-something arcade game is also present, as are a Virtual Boy stand and a soda vending machine.

MSX Shrine

As its name implies, however, Game Tanteidan (Detectives) is very knowledgeable on the value of its wares, and finding rare gems under market price may prove an insurmountable task. If money is no concern, it remains a great place to look for that final missing piece of a collection, as the supply is vast with more obscure consoles such as the Famicom Disk System and SG-1000 being well represented. And, with a probability that infinitely approaches one, the prices are still a bargain compared to Super Potato Seven.


Name: スーパーポテトセブン (Super Potato Seven)
Adress: 大阪府大阪市浪速区日本橋5丁目12−3
Phone: 06-4396-3377
Website: superpotato.com
Twitter: super_potato

Super Potato Seven hardly loses to Tanteidan in terms of elaborate props. The entrance is guarded by a, supposedly, life size Mario figure and a couple of smaller ones can be found after venturing deeper into the labyrinth. Game demos running on each side of the door mat are equally unambiguous toward nature of the store. The first floor is limited to newer releases, so traditionalists may want to strafe in the general direction of the stairway, which is left.

Closest I've ever gotten to a "Stairway to Heaven"

During the climb to enlightenment, preserved empty game boxes add to the unique ambiance of Super Potato Seven, as do the ridiculously narrow decorated corridors on the second floor. The naked light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling keep getting in the way of customers similar to stalactites in a cave. I’ve never been in a cave, but I’ve seen some in games; therefore, I know. Walking through the narrow corridors and constantly hitting your head in said lamps while listening to 8-bit classics and bumping into other ridiculous people might make you forget what decade it is as you keep fiddling with the Zelda game you always wanted as a kid but were never able to acquire.

Boxed Famicom and FDS games at Super Potato

On a general note, if you can find a game elsewhere, it’s most likely cheaper there than at Super potato. However, the emphasis here is on spectrum. Not the Sinclair Spectrum, though, the range of products available. Super Potato easily compares to Tanteidan in the amount of most old Sega products as well as loose Famicom and Super Famicom games. The N64 supply is relatively limited and CIB games for all consoles seem less abundant than next door. To counter this, Super Potato offers some overpriced gamer shirts and other extras like decrepit walkthrough videos of Famicom games from an era before the Internet.


Name: ソフマップ2号店 (Sofmap, 2nd store)
Adress: 大阪府大阪市浪速区日本橋5丁目12−8
Phone: 06-6634-9001
Website: sofmap.com‎

Sofmap is an oddity found in between the two greater stores. It is a relatively normal Sofmap electronics store except it concentrates on video gaming and anime instead of computer hardware. The first floor has newer second-hand games, while the second floor holds most of the older produce.

One photo was able to capture about 50% of their retro supplies

Pecularities of Sofmap include having oldschool game consoles for sale at grotesquely low prices, the catch being that they haven’t been tested for functionality and the store offers no guarantee on whether they will work. Loose games are sold for peanuts as well and even some boxed ones can be discovered for cheaper than most places. Peripherals, controllers and rumble paks are also available in limited quantities.


Name: エーツー日本橋店 (A-Too)
Adress: 大阪府大阪市浪速区日本橋4丁目11−3
Phone: 06-6641-2500
Website: a-too.jp‎

A-Too is a self-proclaimed Media Recycle Shop located roughly one third of the way from Ebisucho station towards Nipponbashi to the north. The store stands in a league of its own, losing clearly to the top 2 in notoriety while also being exponentially better than either Sofmap or Geo.

It has, or rather had a a very distinct advantage over the retro gaming concentrated venues. I remember first having gone to A-Too in 2009 to buy a carftul of N64 games, not because I needed them, but because they were sold loose from a plastic trash can priced ¥5 yen /ea. Someone had to save them. The materials used in making the cartridge must be worth more. Although said box no longer exists, the store offers a variety of adequately priced Nintendo goods from the Famicom to the N64, as well as Saturn and Dreamcast games.

FC, SFC, FDS

I recently bought a copy of Soul Calibur (Dreamcast) for ¥50 and Goonies (Famicom) for ¥300. Furthermore, A-Too offers the largest quantity of any store of the most common consoles and peripherals at very nice prices. One glass display is protecting the most coveted and exclusive titles, proving that A-Too is not entirely without merit in that area either.


Name: ゲオ大阪日本橋店 (Geo, Nipponbashi store)
Adress: 大阪府大阪市浪速区日本橋4丁目11−1
Phone: 06-4396-0081

Compared to the four other entries, Geo is almost useless nowadays. Although shelves still exist for retro products on the first floor, the oldest material to be found as of March 2011 are old DS Lites. On the second floor, in their ecological niche right next to women’s shoes, are the humble remnants of some more common Famicom and Super Famicom games that can be found at almost any other shop.

The entire inventory

The reason to mention Geo is mostly because it’s a chain with manifestations throughout the country and the situation at said shop may well change. Some Geos (Hirakata) are bound to be better equipped retrowise than others (Nerima). Currently this particular one is only good for finding a couple of popular ones for a bargain. Still worth a look before heading to the more plentiful and expensive stores.

Thus ends my insight on retro gaming in the downtown Osaka area. Potential future updates will deal with shops in Hirakata, Nerima and Akihabara whenever I have the time to properly research them. In the meanwhile, here’s a comprehensive overview and picture gallery.

-Antti

Prevalence of console by store

A Night at the Embassy

The Finnish Embassy in Tokyo organized a small event on the 9th of April to allow for Finnish citizens to get together and discuss the sphere of confusion in which Japan has been engulfed during the past month. By being in attendance, I was reminded of quite a few details I had managed to forget as well as able to get access to some novel data.

The event can be divided into three subjects and speakers:

-Finnish Ambassador Jari Gustafsson talked about general risks, communication, traveling, living in Tokyo and explained some of the mechanisms behind the decisions that the embassy had taken in the most hectic weeks after the main quake of March 11.

-Heikki Mäkipää, Head of the Finnish Institute in Tokyo, tapped into his knowledge in geology to give us in-depth information on the current situation concerning possible aftershocks, geological causes for the earthquake and where to turn to for further information.

-The Head of Tekes Japan, Reijo Munther, an engineer with a strong background in nuclear reactors (and cooling systems thereof), shared his views on the Fukushima plant, the imminent dangers it represents as well as put general radiation levels in a Finnish context.

Concerning the media

The ambassador was quick to point out that which has been repeated over and over on the internet for weeks, yet it was still nice to hear it from an official source:  the Japanese are more used to handling earthquake situations and have reacted to the situation very calmly, as opposed to foreign countries who… well… haven’t. In Finland in particular, where earthquakes never reach a magnitude a human being could perceive, merely the mention of an earthquake throws news outlets into scandal-seeking mode. A couple of questions directed at the ambassador today concerned the farce of Finns hoarding iodine pills and the notion that small local newspapers in Viitasaari supposedly knew more about the embassy’s crisis plans than the embassy itself.

Mr. Gustafsson had been in Finland when the quake first struck, and spent the whole day answering different media about the event. He had firsthand experience on how every medium that day was striving to discover the one word that would allow them to publish the most fear mongering story available. On the same morning, one expert source had inadvertently blurted out the term China Syndrome, which had soon been taken out of context and diffused everywhere by overly zealous news outlets who should be washed down the sink and shit-listed.

Concerning communications and traveling

The Finnish Embassy is still discouraging non-essential travel to the Tokyo area, but these limitations are likely to loosen within the following weeks or months.

When all else fails, obsolete technology is here to the rescue.

In the context of mobile phone networks, March 11 indicated that the loss of a mere 10% of network capacity renders mobile phone calls useless in the case of a disaster. If a strong aftershock were to strike Tokyo, this would certainly happen. As experienced during the main earthquake, however, mobile data was still widely available and for example Skype calls via mobile phones worked normally. Similarly, although normal home phone lines experienced issues and were sometimes cut, public phones were devoid of complications, leading to a suggestion for everyone to arm themselves with phone cards.

Finnair remains one of the very few European airlines offering direct flights to Narita airport without the need for crew changes. This means that 3 daily flights from Japan (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka) to Helsinki are constantly rolling, so were the living conditions in Japan to take a turn for the worst, a way out would most likely remain available.

Concerning aftershocks (Kuaket pois!)

The danger and risks evoked by aftershocks were something I hadn’t properly grasped until now. The area affected by the shocks has been constantly reviewed as the epicenters of new aftershocks spread and now covers an area 600kms long practically covering all of Honshu. This means that devastating aftershocks are a possibility anywhere from Tokyo to Hokkaido. A possibility, not an eventuality.

Can you hear the cry of the planet?

Mr. Mäkipää introduced two scenarios prepared by international seismology experts; these scenarios were labeled the hopeful scenario and the negative scenario. In the first scenario, strong aftershocks come to a relatively quick end (obviously this scenario took a huge blow with the 7,1 magnitude aftershock on the 7th of April) and the situation soon calms down as the accumulated pressure in the lithosphere subsides.

The negative scenario concerned the possibility of a significant aftershock with a magnitude above 7, which in the worst-case scenario could hit directly south of the Tokyo area, causing massive damage. Regardless of location, a strong aftershock would definitely cause new problems to the already damaged infrastructure and dangerously stretched rescue and sheltering resources of Eastern Japan. Although there is a possibility for an occurrence of this nature, the probability was not discussed beyond the perspective that it will diminish with time. General guidelines urged us to keep this in mind until summer, asking for increased awareness and vigilance in the near future. While there is no imminent danger, the situation is by no means over.

Concerning radiation

Mr. Munther had a very relaxed approach towards all of the radiation concerns that have been presented up until now. He maintained that the major radiation risk still only concerns a very limited area near the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors while also admitting that no real breakthrough in cooling the reactors had been reached during the past 3 weeks. At the same time, the personnel working on repairing the plant is growing tired, which causes some concern.

He also admitted that until the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake he had been under the belief that the 7 meter-high anti-tsunami wall as well as having the emergency cooling pumps 20 meters above sea level would combine to be an adequate level of precaution at the Fukushima plant. History proved otherwise. The plant is now essentially future scrap metal, but precarious cooling and repairing efforts will need to go on for months, if not years.

Looks pretty good right now

Concerning the tap water scare in Tokyo at the moment, he made a couple of interesting comparisons. First of all, the limits for water radiation levels in Japan are really low compared to European standards. The limit for drinking water is 300 becquerels/kg in Japan while it is set far higher in Finland at 500 becquerels/kg. He demonstrated the disparity by stating that water from drill wells in Finland often reaches as high as 460 becquerels/kg. According to this analysis, when tap water in Tokyo exceeded 100 becquerels/kg (Japanese limit judged safe for children to drink) a couple of weeks back, it would have remained “very good drinking water.”

There is still good reason to keep a reasonable amount of water reserves at home, not due to radiation, but potential aftershocks. Mr. Mäkipää emphasized that in the event of a strong aftershock, it is crucial to stop drinking tap water immediately until a damage assessment has been made. This is due to the possibility of pipes breaking and sewage mixing with drinking water.

As an interesting anecdote, the scarcity of bottled water in Eastern Japan is reportedly not only related to the lack of water itself. One important bottle cap factory in Sendai was destroyed in the original quake, leading to a 30% loss of capacity in the entire Japanese bottle cap industry.

All of the statements in the post (with the exception of my media bashing) are direct translations of comments provided by Finnish government officials, although in a more relaxed, informal environment. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of any of the above.

-Antti