Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2009’ Category

Rubber Bands

December 31st, 2009 Comments off

Strange fact: there seem to be no medium-weight rubber bands in Japan, at least not for sale. You can get scrawny, stringy ones, or you can get massive, inch-wide ones, but you can’t get anything in-between. I have no idea why that is. But it is.

So when I went to the U.S., one of the items on my shopping list was, strangely, rubber bands. I happened to stumble upon a rubber band ball at Fry’s Electronics.

Certainly one of the strangest things I’ve had to import….

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Back to the Land of Civilized Toilets

December 30th, 2009 1 comment

I must say, my backside is glad to be back in Japan. Not that American toilets are terrible, but they pale in comparison to Japan’s. Especially in winter. The heated toilet seat is one of the greatest inventions ever. I can’t say how many times in the past few week I had to either pre-sit on the seat, clothed, to warm it up a bit, or else take the cold plunge right off the bat. Back here in Japan, the seat is nice & toasty whenever you need to use it.

Another difference, although strange: American toilets are lower and smaller. That’s the opposite of what I’d expect, but–at least with the units I used–that’s what I found. The seat itself is smaller in America, more round I think, making it harder to reach in while sitting; in Japan, the seats are more comfortably elongated, plenty of room. Also, I found myself sitting close to the floor in the U.S., while Japanese toilets are comfortably higher.

Bidet-Toilet-Seat-AAnd the thing I missed most: a built-in bidet. Many Japanese toilets have them, with electronic controls on the side. Push a button, and a retractable arm comes out and then washes your backside with warm water. I resisted using these for year, being wary of anything that did something like that, but Sachi got me using it–and I came to depend on it so much that I very much noticed the lack of this feature while in the U.S. Not only does it keep you cleaner, but it saves a considerable amount of toilet paper. Why this has not caught on more, I don’t know. But it’s fairly common in Japan, and has been in use for decades.

2009-10-19Finally, there are public restrooms. I have noted this before on this blog, but public toilet stalls in America are horrible for privacy. Not only do the partitions start a foot or more from the floor, but there are half-inch-wide vertical gaps between the stall doors and the adjacent walls. How many times have you sat down in a stall in a crowded public restroom only to have more than one person press their eyeballs up against this crack to check on who’s in there? In Japan, public toilet stalls are more or less sealed. While there is a gap between the partition and the ceiling, everything else is closed. No gaps at foot level, no gaps in the door–you have actual privacy (visually, at least, although it helps with smells, too). In case there’s an issue about whether or not a stall is occupied, either the doors swing open when not locked, or there is an indicator outside showing if the lock is engaged.

Japanese-ToiletThat said, one still finds, all too often, “Japanese style” toilets in public stalls–that is, the weird, old-fashioned, hooded trenches which require one to squat down. Disgusting for several reasons, which I will not go into here. Why these are still used is beyond me–people who hate sharing a seat, or a concession to older people, perhaps. However, you rarely find a public bathroom which does not give you an option–though often times, if there are both types, the Japanese-style stall will be the only one unoccupied.

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Cops and Donut Joints

December 20th, 2009 2 comments

Sachi and I had a quick dinner at a Mexican grill in town tonight, and something I saw there made me realize something about Japan. A uniformed cop came in, had a drink, and left. And it made me realize that you never see that in Japan: uniformed police officers never come in to eating places as customers. You don’t see them sitting at tables eating food. Even donut joints.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Quick Notes Tags:

Year of the Tiger

December 17th, 2009 3 comments


Our New Year’s Card design for this year. It’s a lot harder than you might think to put convincing tiger stripes onto a Shiba Inu puppy. I had to use several different tiger photos to get just the right stripes, and spent a lot of time with color, brightness, and contrast correction. But I got it done, and Sachi printed out and sent the actual cards.

Happy Holidays!

P.S. — when we made the design, we hadn’t yet heard of the Tiger Woods embroglio.

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Turning Blu

December 11th, 2009 3 comments

In the video rental place I go to in Japan–Tsutaya, a huge chain–they have one narrow shelf of Blu-Ray titles. They say it’s because not many titles have gone to Blu-ray yet. I went to a local electronics store in the SF Bay Area today. This was their Blu-Ray section:


I think I mentioned this before: what the heck is going on with Blu-Ray in Japan?

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Travel Tags:

A New Narita Express

December 9th, 2009 1 comment

Well, at least the car I’m in is new.

I’m trying out WordPress for iPhone 2.1, hoping the photos below will work. I’m adding shots of the whole car, the luggage racks (now with locks!), and the new displays above the seats.

On my way to SFO!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Travel Tags:

Ahead of My Time

December 9th, 2009 1 comment


You see these everywhere now. My school even has these. The one pictured above is from the entrance to the supermarket on the ground floor of our apartment building. Hotels have them set up. I saw them at CEATEC. More and more, plastic pump-spray dispensers of alcohol-based hand wash and becoming ubiquitous (and thankfully, it’s the water-based stuff, not the icky snot-like transparent-lotion-cream stuff that used to be the norm).

And it turns out I am ahead of my time–I started using the stuff four years ago, when it was still hard to find. I could only find water-based wash at one place in Inagi, and when I moved to Ikebukuro, I bought six or eight extras which have lasted until now. And as I noted a few years back, they helped a lot–instead of catching colds several times a year, I am down to once or twice a year.

While I would like to claim to be a trend-setter, I am pretty sure that the real cause for the sudden mass use of this stuff is the Swine Flu–which, ironically, I caught anyway.

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December 8th, 2009 2 comments


Wow. Even in Japan, printers are down to about fifty-five bucks. Sachi and I saw several in this price range when we went to pick up more postcards and some printer ink.

And I think that’s the idea: you get lulled into buying the printer for cheap, and then get hit with the real profit-margin sales when you’re forced to buy ink.

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December 8th, 2009 1 comment


It was a relatively small graduating class this semester, but a very good one. Congratulations, guys!

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Signage Fashion

December 8th, 2009 1 comment


Why do all street signs in Japan feature men wearing hats? I’m pretty sure that those went out of style at least forty years ago, probably even longer. Is the municipal graphics department that backed up?

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Job Well Done

December 2nd, 2009 2 comments

I mentioned a few times before on this blog that the Tokyo government had gone all mercenary on scooter parking. Previously, driving a scooter in Tokyo was not only economical and far better pollution-wise than driving a car, but it was also very nice as one could park just about anywhere.

Trust Governor Ishihara & Co. to screw that up. A few years ago, they wanted to do something about sidewalk congestion. Frankly, that was never really a problem; where sidewalks were too narrow, people usually just didn’t park their bikes there. And if there was a problem, it was 90% caused by bicycles.

So, what did Tokyo do? Naturally, it made it illegal to park scooters on the sidewalk, and employed an army of green-suited ticketers to walk around in pairs and give parking tickets to everything in sight.

Did they target bicycles? Of course not. Primarily they go after scooters–which means that if you use a scooter in Tokyo, it’s now virtually impossible to park anywhere (very few businesses offer parking spaces). You’re told to use a for-pay parking lot, and those (1) are very expensive, (2) often are very far away from where you want to go, obviating the whole use of a bike, and (3) mostly don’t accommodate scooters or motorcycles, meaning that you have to scour the area and try a half dozen parking lots before you find one you can use–and hope that there are open spots there, which there often are not.

But did this accomplish the goal of freeing up sidewalks? Of course not, in part because that was never the goal. The goal was to raise revenues through citations, and I’m sure Tokyo is doing very well. But I for one no longer shop where I used to, as it’s just too much hassle–as I suspect many bikers similarly stopped visiting shops in popular areas for this reason.

But that’s not all: the sidewalks are exactly as crammed as they used to be, but now just with bicycles. No change, zero. Swell.


Worse, some areas are bafflingly anti-visitor. Note the sidewalk shown above: to keep bicycles from parking, they set up those orange barriers. That’s not a construction area, they just put those there to discourage parking. The result: the barriers eat up even more space than the bicycles ever used to. They’ve been up like that for about two years now. And on this one street, the owner of the pharmacy you see at the right side (the shop with balloons) uses the sidewalk as his personal parking lot for his van, blocking what little space is left. And the guy never gets a ticket. (I am fairly sure that the city gives businesses a break.) This is not just at a special time, this is pretty much the way it always is.

The result: Sidewalks are just as crammed as before, a whole class of economical and efficient vehicles is almost effectively banned, and businesses & shoppers are inconvenienced. But the Tokyo government gets to make some nice cash on the side.

So, job well done, Mr. Ishihara.

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December 1st, 2009 1 comment

During a recent visit to Tokyu Hands, Sachi and I were tempted by the wigs:


We tried on about 5 or 6 before a clerk told us to cut that out (more I think because we were taking photos). Personally, I like the blond one: “Waaaayyynnee!!!!”

Sachi came out looking like one of my students:


Me, I just look cool.


How Do You Say “WD-40” in Japanese?

November 27th, 2009 3 comments

Crc556Answer: CRC 5-56. Not that it’s a native Japanese product–I wasn’t able to figure out exactly where it originates from–but that’s the product name which Japanese recognize as much as Americans recognize WD-40 (which, by the way, stands for “Water Displacement – 40th Attempt”).

Crc556 2I found out about the product while looking for something else in the storage area at work, and stumbled across a can of this stuff. I thought it might be a WD-40 analog because of the little straw attached to the side, something recognizably unique to this kind of product. I asked a Japanese staff member, and sure enough, they confirmed that it’s a mechanical lubricant and cleaner, and yes, everyone recognizes the name.

It interested me because I really needed some. Various reasons, but the main one is the bedroom closets. The way our bedroom is set up, to get to the other side of the room, you have to squeeze past the foot of the bed, which is about a foot from our closet doors. Since I (gallantly) sleep on the far side of the bed, that’s my deal. Also, since I go to bed a few hours after Sachi quite often, I have to walk that in the dark while Sachi is trying to sleep.

And that’s the problem: walking by those closet doors causes loud squeaking; in the dark silence of 3:00 am, it’s pretty damned loud, enough to wake Sachi up half the time. So tonight, I sprayed the hinge-rail-thingies (technical term) with CRC 5-56, and now they’re nicely silent.

Next up is my bicycle, when I get the chance.

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Trains, Nationalists, & Automobiles

November 2nd, 2009 3 comments

A few news stories from Japan:

Last night was Halloween, and Halloween in Tokyo means the Yamanote Line. Or at least it used to. Every year for about two decades, there would be something akin to a flash party, where foreigners and their Japanese friends would all agree to ride the Yamanote line and party in costume as it made the last few rounds of its loop line for the night. Here’s a quick documentary on the phenomenon:

However, over the years, the partying has, according to some, gotten more and more out of hand–lots of drinking and obnoxious behavior, which has caused a good deal of concern among the Japanese citizenry. Some foreign revelers reportedly used it as an excuse to harass Japanese traingoers, and Japanese in general were intimidated and generally put off by the whole affair. More and more it became a moving display of drunken debauchery. However, many foreign participants beg to differ, saying that it’s a good-natured party mostly populated by Japanese, and most Japanese traingoers don’t mind–and even join in.

Still, Japanese police take the situation seriously. More and more, over the years, police populate the train stations and the trains themselves. Reports this year are mixed–some say that foreigners with costumes were politely ushered onto the trains by police, others say they were blocked. Whatever the case, it seems that this year’s party was muted at best–not many revelers came on the trains. In part, this may have been from the bad reputation the party has gotten–and in part, it may have been due to threats.

You see, the Halloween Train Party has become something of a symbol among Japanese nationalists, who apparently vastly outnumbered the foreigners this year. A mob of more than a hundred nationalists, many supporting hostile and racist signs, reportedly gathered at Shinjuku Station. There were scattered reports of harassment by these people against random foreigners, and it seems that the police had to focus more on the nationalists. Some nationalists reportedly rode the trains armed with video cameras, hoping to document how foul these foreigners are, reportedly with little or no success.

In other news, the government is looking to increase speed limits on some non-turnpike roads to as high as 80 KPH. The story is relatively vague except to say that the limit could be raised to 80 for roads “not used by pedestrians, bicycles or motorcycles or those that meet other safety requirements.” I went “mentei” (license probation after receiving too many citations) after living in the suburbs close to the boonies out in Tama, not because I drove unsafely, but because the long straightaways with no intersection or pedestrian traffic were rated for 40 KPH speed limits–ridiculously low, and capitalized on by cops as a revenue stream for ticketing. As I noted here, Japanese traffic ops are notorious for issuing tickets not for safety concerns, but just because they can–likely for monetary reasons. Unsafe intersections are almost never observed by traffic cops. In my last two years in the sticks, I got many traffic citations; in the two years after moving to Ikebukuro, I got none–despite no change in my driving habits. Police simply don’t set up speed traps or other ticket traps very often in mid-town.

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Good Lord in Heaven and All That Is Holy

October 23rd, 2009 3 comments

Apparently this is real: The Windows 7 Whopper:


There’s a Burger King at Sunshine City, a few blocks from where I live. I’ll have to check that out. Not that I will actually order one of these abominations–the four-patty “Mega Mac” was bad enough. How many thousands of calories could be in this thing?

Don’t be fooled by the price: at’s 1450 yen (about $16). The “777” yen ($8.50) price is for the first 30 customers of the day. A promotion which, on second thought, might actually last all day.

The Japan Tax

October 4th, 2009 8 comments

Stuff you buy in Japan is more expensive than it is in the U.S. I know that’s old news, and what everyone expects, but it’s something which has both changed and stayed the same over the years.

People got the impression of Japan being expensive back in the 80’s, when Japan was flush. Back then, it was simply over-reported. You had all those stories about $50 musk melons: foreign journalists, wanting to show the greatest contrast possible, went to the priciest shops and found the most outstanding un-bargain they could find. As true as it was that Japan was more expensive, it wasn’t that much more expensive. Most people here didn’t go around buying $50 musk melons.

But things were expensive, and one reason was that people could afford it–and Japan had its own market pretty much tied up. I recall back in 1989, when I lived in Tachikawa, I saw something very new at a discount supermarket called “Topos”: Budweiser and Heineken beers went on sale at a price lower than native beers. After a week, the prices were back up. I asked the manager, and he was surprisingly frank: he told me that the domestic distributors had complained, and so he had to jack up prices of foreign beers again. There was a lot of that kind of thing in Japan at the time.

In the 90’s, however, things changed. The bubble burst, people became less able to spend so much money, and trade deals began knocking down more and more of the walls that had insulated Japan. 100-yen shops began popping up; I do not recall having seen these in Japan previously, but they caught on and today there are two or three in almost every city neighborhood. Prices have dropped, and a lot more foreign goods have made it into the Japanese market. Not nearly as many as you see in other countries, perhaps, but a lot more than there were in Japan twenty years ago.

But one thing has remained true: prices are higher in Japan than they are in the U.S., pretty much as a general rule. And that includes products made in Japan.

I became aware of this back in the early 80’s, when I first visited Japan. I was eager to buy a Nikon camera, and had priced them in the U.S. However, I held off buying one, as I expected they’d be cheaper in Japan. Not so: the same camera, made in Japan, cost more in Tokyo than it did Stateside.

And it is still true today. Price the Canon VIXIA HF200 HD video recorder, for example: at in the U.S., it’s $593. Same camera in Japan at $872. At Yodobashi Camera, a popular discount camera retailer, the equivalent model is $1,150.

People Stateside bemoan movie ticket prices that exceed $10. In Japan, the standard price at the door is $20. But if you are smart, you’ll buy an advanced ticket for the bargain price of $14.50, and if your budget is really tight, you’ll go to a first-day-of-the-month bargain show for just $11.10 (but those shows tend to be very crowded). Ironically, popcorn does cost less in the theater, but it’s a rare exception to the price rule–movie theater concessions in the U.S. are horrifically over-priced.

Another cost for movies which is higher in Japan: DVDs. The 2-Disc DVD for Star Trek (2009) in the U.S. is $23; in Japan, it’s $33. The fourth season of Bones costs $38.50 in the U.S.; in Japan, it’s $163–more than four times as much.

Why did this come up for me? Because I just bought airline tickets home for Christmas. Called the local travel agency, No. 1 Travel (which has eaten up most of its competitors in this town), and was told that my regular airline, United (frequent flier miles do kind of lock you in) did not have any open seats coming back to Japan for the whole last two weeks of December. And even if they did, the ticket price would be ¥75,000 ($833). But they didn’t, because they said that such a low price for tickets on United were a “special” fare and thus were very limited; I could only fly United if I paid more than a thousand dollars per ticket. So instead I asked them to hold for me the next best thing, tickets on Northwest, also priced at ¥75,000, thinking that I would not find a better price.

So then I went on, a web site recommended by a co-worker, and typed in the same flight I had asked for. The cheapest fare came up: United, for $760–you could buy direct from their site. Hmm. No problem with the return flight, plenty of seats. I called up United in Japan, figuring that I could just buy from them here. They said, sure; again, no problem with seats on the return flight–but the price is ¥75,000. I told them about the price listed on the site, and they said that that was the U.S. dollar price, and they could not charge me that from within Japan. OK. So I went back online and bought the tickets with my U.S.-based credit card. For tickets for me and Sachi, I saved $146. I even saved myself a few trips to the local travel agency shop.

The DVD and airplane tickets are excellent examples of how the prices should be no different: neither represent much difference in actual production costs. The airline tickets should have been exactly the same.

Instead, it appears that people in Japan still pay a tax for being in Japan; the practice of over-pricing persists. Why is a different question. I’m no economist, so I can only guess. Japan has suffered from a bad economy for a long time, so affluence can’t be the reason. Taxes are a possibility, but if it were, then the over-pricing should be consistent. This is not so: some cameras cost only 10 or 20% more than the U.S. price, while some cost much, much more than American counterparts. Macs, for instance, are usually 10 ~ 20% more expensive here, on a consistent basis, while other electronic items, like video cameras, cost a great deal more. Because the over-pricing is neither universal nor consistent, it seems unlikely that taxes alone account for all of the differential.

If I had to guess, I would say that in some cases, the products are overpriced simply because they can be–the sellers simply believe that people here will pay a higher price. It may also be that the practice of subsidizing cheaper prices overseas by over-charging in Japan continues in some places.

If anyone out there has a clearer understanding of this, I’d love to hear about it.

As a side note, I remember when my airline ticket purchase would have been a no-go: back in the 80’s, you were required to buy airline tickets from within Japan, where they were more than just $70 more expensive at the time. The common end-run around that was a ticket called yobiyose (Japanese for “to summon”), where you bought a ticket which went from, say, Hong Kong to Tokyo to S.F. and then back to Tokyo. Because the ticket started outside Japan, you could avoid the massive Japan tax, and you just discarded the first leg. That was, of course, frowned upon by the airlines. At some point the market relaxed and this is no longer a problem.

One more side note: I bought most of my DVDs from the U.S. because of the significant price difference, but now have a problem: Sachi is not as satisfied watching them without Japanese subtitles. Oops. And I have to have a region-free DVD player to watch them to boot.

Interestingly, Blu-ray regions are arranged so that U.S. and Japan are in the same region–but, of course, the Blu-rays sold in the U.S. never have Japanese subtitles. Spanish, French, even Arabic are common, but never Japanese. Gee, I wonder why.

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New Tokyo Tower

September 26th, 2009 2 comments

Oldtt00If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, or at least seen the movie Mothra, then you probably know about Tokyo Tower, a fixture in the city for the past fifty-one years. Built in 1958, at a height of 332.5 meters, it has been perhaps the city’s most famous landmark. Go almost anywhere in the southern half of the city, and it’ll probably be visible–a big, red-and-white tower in the heart of the city.

Tokyo Tower was built as a broadcasting platform, at first for newfangled TV transmissions, and a few years later for radio as well. The problem is that Japan is now switching over to HDTV (called Hi-Vision here), and Tokyo Tower is not tall enough for sending terrestrial digital signals.

As a result, it was figured that a new tower would have to be built. I’d heard about it a few times over the past several years–a big ol’ tower raised in the relatively low-level area around Asakusa, due east of Ueno and north-east of Akihabara, about 1.5 km distant from each.

The new tower is slated to finish construction in December of 2011, opening in Spring of 2012, and is going to reach 610 meters in height, not quite double the old Tokyo Tower. But it won’t be called “New Tokyo Tower” officially. Instead, it has the doubtful monicker “Sky Tree,” a somewhat Japanese-sounding English name. I’m gonna call it “New Tokyo Tower” myself.

I had thought that it would take a while longer before construction was visible–they broke ground about 6 months ago–but when I looked out my window today, I happened to notice a new building on the horizon. Not every day that hap–um, well, actually, in Tokyo, it is about every day that happens, now that I think about it. But this building will be bigger than most. Here’s what I can see now:



According to the tower’s home page, it is currently at 153 meters; sounds about right.

By copying and photoshopping an artist’s rendering of the tower over the images I took, you can get an idea of what it’ll look like:



From our balcony, without the zoom magnification, at about 8.7 km (5.4 miles) distant, it would look like this:


So, naturally, buy 2011, some other building will have cropped up right in the way. Not that we’ll be here to be annoyed by it–we’ll probably move out of our current place by next year sometime, the intent being to buy a place and pay into the equity instead of just bleeding rent.

One other observation about the tower: it is situated almost perfectly for observing fireworks. I imagine that it’ll be booked for years in advance for engagements viewing the Sumida Fireworks show, the most famous in Tokyo, which go on just a few hundred meters away. Wouldn’t be surprised in the tower were already booked for three years from now, and maybe a few years beyond that.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:

First Anniversary

September 20th, 2009 6 comments

In a way, that is. Officially, Sachi and I were married on March 17th, 2008. But that was just a legal matter, doing the paperwork at city hall. What we consider our “real” wedding was… well, again, more than one occasion. We got married on September 20th last year in the United States, and then again on September 27th in Japan. So it’s kind of hard to tell when out actual anniversary is. In one way, I have three times the burden of the usual husband, having to remember three dates instead of just one. On the other hand, if I forget one, I have two more chances.

Today we kept the celebration modest (next week’s will be more elaborate); we went to a very nice local restaurant, one we went to once before, but only once as it opened just a few months ago. It’s just a few hundred feet away from our apartment building in Ikebukuro. It’s a great little plane, called “Danoi,” which we were told is Italian for “home” (though I could not confirm that with online dictionaries). It’s a very nice little Italian restaurant tucked back on a side street nearby, and we really like the place. The chief waiter is a Nepalese gentleman named Sabin who speaks Japanese and English very well, and we were served by a charming waitress named Keiko tonight.

The restaurant first serves you bread; tonight it was with butter, olive oil, and a cheese sauce, and was delicious. We ordered pizza first; though it’s not on the menu, we asked for Prosciutto pizza like we did last time, and they obliged us. Next we had a delicious pork dish (gently cooked, with tomato topped by cheese), a nice Caesar salad, and finished with salmon and broccoli pasta.




At one point I mentioned it was our anniversary, and so they gave us dessert for free; we got Tiramisu and chocolate cake (it was more like fudge!), which were both delicious.



A few more images of Sachi and I, alone, and with Sabin and Keiko.


Danoi All

We’d include the URL for the restaurant, but as the place is new, the web site isn’t up yet. If you’re interested in knowing where it is, comment (fill in your email address) and note the request and that you don’t want the comment published, and I will send you more info on how to get there.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2009, Ikebukuro Tags:


September 12th, 2009 3 comments

It’s time for Aki Matsuri, or Fall Festivals in Japan. I have noticed the lanterns going up around shrines, and this afternoon a couple of omikoshi (portable shrines) were carried along the streets by a few groups of kids with their families and community volunteers. I can still hear the double whistle-blows coming from a distance as the groups continue to cover the neighborhood streets. Think of it as kind of a Japanese version of street caroling.

For a taste of Japanese street revelry, play the sound file (hopefully you can see it) while checking out the photos I took from the 21st floor as they passed by on the street below.

9129 Festival-01

9129 Festival-02

9129 Festival-03

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Small Quake

September 4th, 2009 1 comment

A 4.5 hit about 30 miles due east of us a few minutes ago. Shook the building for a minute. We could tell it was local because it was more of a bouncing quake than a swaying one. Nothing big.

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