Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category


April 17th, 2015 3 comments

Living in Japan, tipping is just something you don’t have to deal with. You don’t tip here, ever. Not at any restaurant, not for taxi drivers, not for deliveries, hotel service, nothing. It’s actually very nice, as you don’t have to research and remember complex rules about how much to tip which kind of service. You don’t have to deal with the fear of seeming like a cheapskate, or worry about how the person serving you will feel if it’s this much or that much. Here in Japan, paying for something is a stress-free process.

Honestly, to this day, I have no idea how much I would tip a taxi driver for a fare (is it different from short and long hauls?), or a bellhop to show me to my room (I have to ask family and friends when that’s something I have to deal with). I recall that 15% used to be the standard for restaurant tips, now it seems to be 20%.

This causes problems for me when I travel back to the U.S., as I have to break long-held habits. Once, some years back, while on vacation from Tokyo, I went to a restaurant in San Francisco with a friend who was also visiting from Japan. We ate, paid, and left. I realized I had left my jacket at the restaurant, so I went back. I told the waiter who had served us that I had forgotten my jacket. He said, “You forgot your tip, too.” Somewhat abashed, I got out a generous tip as I tried to explain why that happened; I am guessing he didn’t believe me, but whatever.

So I was a bit confused on more recent trips back when I would go to a place that had general seating, but I would instead order something for take-out. There would be a tip jar on the counter, and when I pad by credit card, there would be a line for the total, the tip, and the total with the tip, so that you would have to write the same amount twice, essentially making an outright statement that you are not tipping at all. I was rather taken aback when I first encountered it, and have never been comfortable with it—it seems excessively pressuring, like a few years back when many businesses asked out loud in the line at the register if you “wanted” to make a donation to a charity (which you usually had never heard of and knew nothing about) with your purchase, and to refuse you had to say it out loud in front of a line of people.

When someone waits on me, that deserves a tip. They have to show me to a table, be prompt with service, carry stuff back and forth across the restaurant, make sure your water glass is full, deal with complaints corrections, take care of the payment, maybe other things we don’t even notice. With a home delivery, well, they drive across town to deliver for you, presumably doing so promptly but safely. The standard is, special work is being done.

But a counter pick-up? Really? The person behind the counter is doing no more work than any other register person at any other store. Do you tip the check-out person at the supermarket? Do you tip the concessions seller at a movie theater? Nope.

The argument is often made that these people are paid minimum wage. If that’s the standard, then why are only restaurant people afforded this generosity? Not to mention that servers get tipped because they get paid a pittance (well below minimum wage, often just a few bucks an hour) as the tips are expected to be their main income; cashier people, I understand, are paid a regular wage, as are the cooks.

I’m also pretty sure that a tip was never demanded for counter service when I was younger—of course, tip jars were hardly ever there, either. I’m not arguing that counter staff don’t need the money; however, a lot of minimum wage earners who never get tips deserve better as well. It just seems like an attempt by restaurants to justify paying more workers less, and/or an attempt by better-paid staff to get a gratuity simply because it is a close extension to an established but separate gratuity system.

I would be quite happy if America followed Japan’s example and just got rid of the system completely. Pay people a living wage ($15 at the very least for a minimum wage for whatever job), and just factor that into the prices.

Of course, what would probably happen is that the businesses would all pretend like the difference would cost them a lot more than it really would, and would take the opportunity to hike prices too much… still, the change would be a good thing.

Categories: Economics, Travel Tags:

Flying in Style

January 26th, 2015 2 comments

I recently booked my flight back to the U.S. … for next December. Award miles, you see. Booking award miles last-minute, or even three months in advance (when I usually book when paying) can be a real pain. Turns out that they open up the flights about 11 months in advance, so you kind of have to book early. If you catch them when they open up, though, you tend to have a nice selection, and can get pretty much what you want.

I’ve been flying back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for years. I have no idea how many award miles slipped past me during years I did not fly, but now I am finally up to an amount where I can travel to San Francisco and back twice on miles alone. This is possible if I take Economy the trip over, and Business on the trip back.

That combination is pretty much ideal. The trip to the U.S. is shorter, a bit over 9 hours; the flight back is longer, about 11 hours and a half. Naturally, booking Business for the longer half makes a lot of sense, for various reasons. First, it’s just a longer trip. Making that easier

Second, it’s more arduous. On the trip over, my father picks me up to drive me home when I arrive; on the way back, I face a long train ride home from Narita, lugging two larger suitcases plus a carry-on case and a backpack. What’s more, Business gives you two free checked bags versus the one checked bag for Economy; on my trip from Japan, I have mostly empty bags, so I just put my smaller case inside my larger one.

Third, it fits the strengths and weaknesses of my benefits. I have mileage-based perks, which give me lounge privileges and priority boarding… only if I fly United from an airport which has United facilities. The flight back will be operated by ANA (it usually is), so taking Business with the ANA leg allows me to get the benefits I would miss on Economy.

Taking the Economy flight to the U.S. is also better now that I have found a flight I like: United recently scored a berth at Haneda, leaving from 1:00 a.m. You might think that the Haneda part is the real advantage, as it’s in central Tokyo as opposed to Narita, which is way out in Chiba. Ironically, however, the train rides are about the same for me. Because the Skyliner makes the trip so rapidly, both routes are about equal in terms of transfers and times. No, for me, the real sweet part is leaving at 1:00 a.m. Normally, I leave Narita at 4 p.m. or so on Tuesday, and arrive in SFO very early in the morning. It means that I don’t have time to do anything useful on Tuesday in Japan, and as I am wiped out arriving in California, that whole day is more or less wasted as I struggle to stay awake all day.


Instead, I get to use all the daytime hours on Monday, and late Monday evening, I roll out for the airport. By the time I get to Haneda (which has much nicer facilities than Narita, including lots of power outlets and easy-to-access free WiFi), I am about ready to go to sleep. And on my last trip over to the U.S., I shocked myself: I actually did go to sleep, for about 4 or 5 hours. Unexpectedly, without trying. I’m never able to sleep on airplanes, even with drugs. I couldn’t believe it. But the timing appears just about perfect for exactly that.

Also, there may be something about the lack of air traffic at such times: my late-night flight from Haneda last month not only took off right on time, but also was able to arrive earlier than expected.

As an added bonus, I arrive in the U.S. late afternoon Monday (thank you, International Date Line), with enough time to get tired again, and wake up bright and shiny Tuesday morning, able to use that entire day as well. Sweet!

Another great improvement is the airline amenities. Now, all the flights I take have those in-flight entertainment screens on the back of the seat in front of you. Which is nice, but ironically less relevant, now that they also have the far more significant power outlets for every seat, allowing me to use my laptop throughout the flight. My iPad made even that somewhat irrelevant recently, but having the nice 15“ Retina display for the whole fight is nice. I can rip more than enough media to keep me occupied, not to mention do end-of-semester clean-up work.

I chose a center-aisle seat because the aircraft layout has only three seats in the middle group, meaning you only have a 50% chance of someone climbing out over you, as opposed to the window-side aisle seats, which have a 100% chance two people will have to ask you to leave your seat during the flight. Not to mention that usually the other two seats are occupied by a couple, who lean together and leave their seats together, or you get another solo on the far seat side, so the middle seat, being the least desirable on the plane, is more often empty if the flight is not full.

On the Business side, though, ANA makes the deal far sweeter. Flying business on United is nice (I once got upgraded on the way over to the states), but nowadays, they mostly offer very strange arrangements where half the seats face backwards so you are facing the person in front of you. The seats may recline 180°, but even if they do, the window/interior seat occupants still have to shuffle past you, or step over you if you are reclined.

On ANA, however, they have little partially-enclosed seat-islands, only four per row, meaning each person gets their own aisle access. You definitely are able to lie down flat, and have not just your own armrests, but two tables—one sliding table for your laptop and meals, in front of the 17” LCD monitor, and a largish side table to boot. There’s storage for my backpack so I don’t have to fish things out of the luggage bins, and even a shoe storage space.


Better yet, I was able to get seat 1K—first row! Cool. The nice part of that is not just being right up at the front, but rather that the seat is right next to the bulkhead, so there’s the table and a partial wall separating you from the traffic, and no one walking past your seat in-flight except the flight staff. As far as seat reviews go, I could not get better than this one, which was a highly detailed review for the exact seat on the exact flight I’m taking. Impossible to be more spot-on than that.

The Business seat on ANA cost 10,000 more miles than the United arrangements, but ANA’s Business is actually closer to United’s First seats, so, deal.

Using award miles, you still have to pay for airport fees and travel insurance, but the round trip came out to $72. And, I still have enough miles to do the exact same thing next year as well.

Categories: Travel Tags:

Seat Reclining

August 27th, 2014 3 comments

Remember when economy seats on international flights were spaced far enough apart that you could have a window seat and still leave without waking up the other two passengers between you and the aisle? That was actually how things were back in the 80’s when I began flying.

I recall things getting more an more cramped; soon, you had to squeeze past the other people’s knees, then you had to kind of step over them in a strange contortion. Finally, it got to the point where egressing from the row required everyone to spill out of their seats first.

That’s not too bad in itself—typically, such seat departures can be an opportunity to take care of business—a toilet trip, getting a drink or snack, getting something from the overhead bins, or even just a leg stretch, which you should do several times anyway on long flights.

However, the closer spaces created a much more annoying difficulty: when the person in front of you reclines their seat.

I hate that. It makes the already confined space you’re in even more claustrophobic, and as a person who prefers to use his laptop on the plane, that becomes almost impossible.

Worse, I have terrible luck when it comes to this. After many 9- to 13-hour international flights (I take one round trip a year on average), I got the feeling that I was almost always behind a recliner. Knowing that often it just seems that way because we remember the bad times and not the good, I started tracking it—and lo, I found that while about 1/3rd of people in my section of the plane reclined fully for most of the flight, I got recliners more than 2/3rds of the time.

I can usually predict it: the moment the seat belt sign goes off after takeoff, WHAM! The seat in front of me rocks back, while the three other seats adjacent to me don’t get that. (I always choose an aisle seat in the center group of seats—only one person to let out instead of two.) I don’t know, maybe people in aisle seats tend to recline more—it seems to make sense, they already arranged for a seat that gives them a bit more comfort.

Yes, I should probably try to sit in the emergency exit row. Except that, for one thing, it usually is filled up by the time I buy my tickets, and, for another thing, the airline I usually fly charges about a hundred dollars extra for these seats.

Now I hear about a product that in one sense sounds nice, but in another sense is totally dickish: gadgets that prevent the person in front of you from reclining. It would not be hard to predict that this would cause fights that could ground airlines, which it has.

The idea of these devices is that some people’s legs are so long that when the person in front of them reclines, it hits their knees, hard enough to cause pain. The person with the “Knee Defenders” will apply the gadgets before seats can be reclined at the start of the flight, deciding how much the person in front of them is allowed to recline.

Now, as you can tell from my previous writing, I would love to avoid recliners. However, I see this gadget as totally asinine.

First of all, imagine being in a seat when the person in front of you reclines. You have not reclined, so you feel squeezed. The only relief you have is to recline your own seat—but then you discover that they guy behind you has locked your seat frozen. For his comfort.

If reclining is such a problem for your knees, there are a few other solutions. If contacting the airline ahead of time and arranging for the problem won’t work, you can try to find an airline that has non-reclining seats. When I fly, ANA is the choice, versus United—ANA has seats which have solid backs. Instead, when you recline, your seat slides forward, sending your legs further under the seat in front of you, which was designed to have more space. It actually works pretty well, and wherever I can get such a seat, I try to. I wish United would change that way.

Alternately, you could just grumble and put down the extra money for their “economy plus” seats that are still smaller than 1980’s economy seats but are marginally bigger than regular economy. Yes, it’s unfair to have to pay a premium for body shape or size, and airlines should be the ones responsible for making it so no one has to suffer unduly. Until they can be forced to change that, though, it may be the price you pay.

One thing is for certain: you cannot just unilaterally decide what comfort the person in the seat in front of you enjoys.

Categories: Travel Tags:

Skeeters Bin Busy

August 26th, 2012 3 comments

Lots of bugs in the countryside, there are. I have been scratching quite a bit recently. In Japan we get that too, but usually I don’t get anything but bug parts when I slap one. Not so here:



Not one, but two mosquitoes I caught flying in a logy manner in the room. Slapped them, and got a few drops of my blood back.

Categories: Travel Tags:

The Devil Is in the Details, And Immigration Doesn’t Say Much about the Devil

August 13th, 2012 5 comments

So I am leaving for a business trip to the U.S. soon, and Japan has just adjusted its immigration laws and procedures. One welcome change: re-entry permits are no longer required.

However, there are other details as well. Rules are different between regular visa holders and those with permanent residency. And there’s a new “Residence” card to replace the “Alien Registration Card.”

I have not had time to get the new card, and after all, I am not required to change until 2015. My last re-entry permit expired, but they say you don’t have to have one any more. Feeling my “Gaijin-ey Sense” tingling, I wanted to make sure: if I travel outside of Japan without a new Residence card and without an old-fashioned re-entry permit, am I still OK?

I called Immigration in Shinagawa to make sure, and they said “yes.” I called the Narita office, and they repeated the same thing. Still paranoid, I called the main immigration office again and spoke with a supervisor. Same answer.

Just to be on the safe side, I spoke with an advisory center for foreigners, who told me the same thing, but added one tiny little detail: on the embarkation-disembarkation card they have you fold inside your passport, a new check box has been added: it reads, “みなし再入国許可” and “Departure with Special Re-entry Permission.”

If you don’t check that box, you lose your visa status, including your permanent residence status.

I called Narita once more after learning that, and they gave me the same vague reassurances they had before. I asked if there was anything else, they said “no.” I then asked about the check box. The guy said, “Oh yes, You have to do that too.”

Well, thanks for giving me the heads-up on that.

Okay, maybe they make sure you check the box at the airport. Or maybe it’s something everyone must do and they did not think of mentioning it in answer to my specific question.

And yet, with the consequences as dire as that for such a tiny little detail, one would think they would mention it in passing. You know, “Just make sure to check the ‘re-entry’ box on you E-D card!” To which most people would reply, “The what on my what?”

I really have to wonder how many people are going to walk into major trouble because that detail is glossed over.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2012, Travel Tags:

Forward to the Past

September 15th, 2010 2 comments

I have complained often in the past about how the airlines are slowly squeezing the seats together in Economy class so they can get yet another and another row of seats they can get a bit more money out of every flight. Domestic flights are bad enough, but for international flights, it’s sheer torture, even without the other usual hazards of airline travel (people who sit next to you being second on the list).

I remember way back when “Economy” seats were far enough apart that you could have a window seat, and with passengers in the two seats next to you, you could still stand up and exit the row without them getting up. After a few years, you had to squeeze by, and they had to angle their knees to help you. Today, it is a physical impossibility to exit without your neighbors getting out of their seats (unless you are five years old or have the ability to pass through solid matter).

Well, they’ve got their game plan to make it even worse. Witness the next generation of airline seats, the “SkyRider” design:


28 inches between seats. Keep in mind that there are a lot of people who are more than 28 inches from back to front. (One has to wonder if there are laws which do not allow you to charge people a premium for transportation based on their physical makeup, especially if it entails progressively squeezing people to get more money from them.)

I saw this a few days ago, but seeing Sean post on it brought it back to mind. Note that in the illustration above, they do not depict a person between the rows, and for an excellent reason. Forget not being able to open your laptop, this design will make it impossible to get out your iPad. Or get out of your seat without an complex system involving cables and a hoist.

As it happens, I have special connections within the industry, and have acquired a design schematic of the next generation seat design after the SkyRider, borrowing from “classic” models:


OK, slight exaggeration. But you know they would if they could. How far are we evolving, where we are on track toward paying for this.

Categories: Corporate World, Travel Tags:


December 30th, 2009 1 comment


My dad’s tennis coach and long-time friend was very kind to us, driving us to the airport yesterday morning, and coming over for pizza the night before. A special treat: we got to meet William, his Border Collie. You hear about the intelligence of these dogs, but meeting one brings that reputation into focus, makes it palpable. William has such focus and purpose, it’s amazing. Even if it’s something as simple as “catch the ball,” he is there, a hundred and ten percent. As long as the ball was out, he was in a fore-paw crouch, eyes focused intently, ready to spring. Not hyper, unable to contain himself, like many dogs in that situation, but powerfully concentrated, even as he seemed at ease, almost relaxed, though ready to spring. After catching the ball, he would not necessarily bring it back to the thrower, but would drop it at a new person’s feet, as though he was being careful to include everyone.

I swear, the dog just radiated intelligence. The way he would look at you, you would swear he was indicating the appropriate human emotion in considered reaction to what was being said. Driving to the airport, I mentioned the considerable slobber he imparted to the tennis ball; when I glanced at him there in the back seat, he was giving me a low, sidelong look that for the life of me expressed suffered disdain at my lack of understanding and tact, holding it for just the right amount of time before settling down on his blanket to ignore me. At times, I would not have been at all surprised had he suddenly started speaking English.



Categories: Travel Tags:

Travel Report

December 30th, 2009 4 comments

So, how was the security situation when Sachi and I traveled back to Japan yesterday? Virtually unchanged.

At SFO, security was hardly any different. Lines were short when we arrived at 8:45 am. We could have come an hour later and still have arrived early. The only real changes I noticed from the past was (a) a TV news van outside the arrivals area, and (b) one extra person checking documents a bit more carefully at security. You know how they have the amusement-park tope lines? A person checked our passports and boarding passes at the beginning of the ropes, and another person checked them again–checking off each of three or four items–at the end of the rope line. But at the metal detectors, all was pretty much the same–shoes, belts, jackets off, computers separate, walk through the detector, out you go. In fact, there was no one checking random passengers at the gate this time. Sachi and I arrived at the gate more than two hours before the flight began.

Fortunately, nothing had changed on the flight itself–no nonsense about being welded to your seat for the last hour of the flight. We were allowed to walk around and do carry-on stuff until just before descent. And really, that’s how it should be. Security should be more on the ground–watch lists, background checks, better equipment and training for security checkpoints, that kind of stuff. We landed, waited 30 minutes for the luggage to come out, and were passed through customs.

I am glad we upgraded to Economy Plus; while it still irks me to pay extra for what used to be free, it was nice to have the extra space. It wasn’t a whole lot of extra space, but compared to having your knees crammed up against the seat in front of you, it was much better. As I mentioned before, it’s what Economy used to be for the whole plane before they started charging for not being squeezed into the tiny spaces they sell now. I think I might make it a regular thing from now, if I can’t get an exit row in regular Economy. However, since I did it so late this time, there were no aisle seats at first, and then only a bulkhead aisle seat opened up–not enough room to fully extend my legs, a big deal for me. Sachi got that seat while I took a middle seat 6 rows back. On boarding, we were able to swap with the guy sitting in the aisle next to me, so it all worked out.

But the magical Luis Effect happened yet again: the person directly in front of me was the very first in the whole section to recline back, immediately after take-off, and stayed that way until just before landing. And again, only about 20-30% of the cabin reclined back. It never fails for me.

Categories: Travel Tags:

Can You Spare a Dollar? How about a Twenty?

December 27th, 2009 7 comments

Whenever I come back to the U.S., one things that is quickly apparent is the amount of panhandling going on. There are people in the street, of course. When Sachi and I visited the city, there was the usual contingent–the one who sticks in my mind was they guy who, as we approached, loudly asked for thirty-seven cents. I instantly recognized the scam–make someone stop and at least think about why the odd and/or low number, work on them more to give something, and if they fall for the pitch and start to reach for their pockets, up the request again and again (the one time I was foolish enough to give a quarter, the guy tried to work me up to twenty dollars, giving the odd sob story that he was just released from prison and needed money for food, promising to pay me back if I would give him my home address). So we passed without a glance, after which the guy added, “Or at least you could look at me!”

The traffic-light street-divider panhandlers are getting a bit more audacious around here as well. There used to be just one guy at this one intersection holding up a sign, standing at the center divider just in front of the turn signal traffic light; when traffic stops, some people give money. Now they’re at several traffic lights all around, and some of them step up to work the line of cars whenever the red light goes.

Still, I’m familiar with all of that. What I did not expect was to have panhandling at the checkout counter. Yes, the people ringing the bell outside the doors I am used to, but never have I been asked by the store staff. I first encountered it at a Pottery Barn at Stanford Shopping Center (Sachi loves stores with home furnishings). When we paid for a few dinner napkins, the cashier asked me if I wanted to donate money to such-and-such a cause. Personally, I don’t like that at all–you are forced either to donate or to look like a cheapskate in front of other people in public. But I thought that it was just this one upscale shop, and that one specific charity. But no–I was next asked for a handout at Sears when I bought a piece of clothing: “care to add a few dollars for the families of brave fighting men and women overseas?” I have nothing against charity or causes–Sachi and I do give sometimes–but to be publicly blackmailed like that is galling.

When did this start? Does it go on all year, or is it just a holiday thing? Is it just in the Bay Area, or is it nationwide?

Categories: Travel Tags:

A Coincidence, I Am Sure

December 27th, 2009 1 comment

I am currently assigned to seat 19B on the flight home. Yikes.

I’m being snarky, of course. And I’m probably changing my seat, but not because of the meaningless numerical coincidence. It’ll be because 19B on my flight is the bulkhead seat, and I paid an extra hundred for more face and leg room. Having a wall in front of you actually decreases the amount of leg space you have.

Categories: Travel Tags:

Oh, Great

December 27th, 2009 1 comment

So we get another lame dickhead like the shoe bomber, and, as I feared when I first saw the report yesterday, countless air travelers now have more useless, meaningless hassles when traveling because the government and airlines desperately want to look like they are doing something, when actually these “safety” measures do exactly squat.

The New York Times is reporting that now, for the last hour of the flight, passengers will not be allowed to move around the cabin, and will not be allowed to have anything on their laps during descent. Really? What difference will that make? Honestly, it’s as if one bozo in his car in Cleveland runs a stop sign, and as a result, every driver in the United States is forced to slow down to 5 mph 100 feet before every single stop sign in the country. Useless, meaningless, aggravating–which was probably exactly what the secondary point of the exercise was–that if they could not blow up the plane, at least they could make as many people miserable in the heavy travel season as possible.

That’s the most frustrating thing here–the stupid security stuff they will now require just so the government and airlines can make a show of things is a nice consolation gift for whomever did this.

How about this: hire more frakking people at the X-ray and baggage check so people don’t carry frakking bombs onto the aircraft. I would think that something along those lines might be a little more productive. But that would also be a little more telling of where the responsibility for yesterday’s fiasco lies.

And Sachi and I fly back home the day after tomorrow. Swell.

Categories: Travel Tags:

The Star Trek Exhibit at The Tech Museum

December 14th, 2009 1 comment

I went with my sister, nephew, and some friends to the Star Trek Exhibit at The Tech Museum in San Jose (review). It appears that this is an exhibit that has been making the rounds, as it has been in at least a few other cities before, such as Detroit and San Diego.

Before we left, I was preparing to take my camera, when it struck me that they might not allow photography. I checked out the web site, and, sure enough, they didn’t. When I added that together with the fact that they had a complete bridge set from the 1966 show, it became pretty clear that either one of two things were true: either Paramount had some copyright restrictions in play, or they were making a huge amount of money by photographing people on the set and selling the photos. I bet on the latter, and I was spot on: they were charging $28 for a pair of photos of you in the captain’s chair (add $5 for a transporter photo). This in addition to the $15 admission and the $5 simulator ride. Be prepared to spend at least $58 per person if no one can resist the full photo set.

The exhibit was not really bad, but it wasn’t fantastic, either. The set recreation was OK, but wasn’t fantastic, or wholly true to the real thing. It was smaller, for one thing. You could not, for example, walk around the captain’s chair from behind, something they did all the time in the show. Mr. Spock’s station, aside from being in the wrong place relative to the captain’s chair, didn’t have the blue-light scanner thingie he used to look into all the time (they had one at Mr. Scott’s station instead, which was from a third-season version of the set). And the main viewscreen, aside from lacking the blue-light fringe, didn’t have the trademark lights at the bottom which blinked from the center outwards. Heresy.

After the bridge set, you walk through a TNG corridor past a recreation of Picard’s Ready Room (no entrance), a transporter room (another for-cash photo opp), a recreation of the Guardian of Forever set (no photos of you jumping through, wasted opportunity), a display of models and other stuff (including shooting models of a Borg Cub and the Enterprise D, both of which were a bit disappointing), followed by a special gift shop (naturally) and two simulators with a Borg scenario narrated by Michael Dorn.

We weren’t complete dorks, however; while the kids were waiting to ride the simulators, we adults sat around trading recommendations for iPhone apps.

Categories: Entertainment, Travel Tags:

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:

It Never Fails

December 11th, 2009 5 comments

No matter how few people on an airplane lean their seats back, especially way back, it’s always the guy directly in front of me. Particularly galling this time is that the ass has an exit row, so he has all the space in the world to stretch out–but he just has to lean back too, and steal what tiny increment of space I have left.

I wrote the above as I was on the plane, and was feeling fairly frustrated. It really is true, however: on every flight I have taken over the past several years, the person in front of me (always a man, by chance) never fails to lean all the way back right after the initial in-flight meal. I always check around, and see that no more than 20-30% of the people in the area have their seat backs down, so in theory it should happen to me only once every four or five flights. But no, it’s 100% of the time on my Pacific flights–I’ve been keeping track.

You know those “Economy Plus” seats they now charge extra for? Guess where they got the space from? I swear, every time I fly, it seems like the seats are closer and closer together. And while the annual incremental crawl may be imagined, the overall crunch is definitely not. I remember, for example, that it was once possible for the passenger in the window seat to leave without the other passengers getting up; this act is now physically impossible. (Thought: is there any regulation determining the minimum distance airlines can squeeze people into for flights over three or four hours in length? If not, there should be.)

And that wasn’t the only problem I had. The only aisle seat I could get was right next to the galley door–I thought it would be next to the lavatories, but in fact it was farthest from those. Instead, I had flight attendants shoving the food carts against my seat for half the flight, the other half filled with their loud chatting and the bright lights from the galley area–and no matter how often I tried to close the curtain, an attendant would come along moments later and brush the curtain aside.

At least the guy sitting next to me was not a large, sweaty, or talkative guy, nor was he an armrest hog, but he apparently had bladder problems. To get seated again, it took some gymnastics to get everything back in place: discover where your seat belts snaked off to, reach down with your hands to retrieve stuff from your bag on the floor (again, you used to be able to bend down forward), put the seat tray up, set up the laptop or whatever else you were doing–a real study in what the human body can accomplish while crammed into a very confined space (a study in resentment when your already tiny space is cut in half by the ass in front of you with all the space in the world).

Once, I got some water to take Ibuprofen to help with the back pain the seat was causing. Then, of course, because of the confined space, right after I popped the pills in my mouth, my hand caught on something and the cup full of cold water spilled all over. It was then that I discovered that airplane seats are anti-absorbent, and gravity caused a good deal of that water to run straight for my crotch.

So, while freezing cold water was slowly gathering in my nether region, I had to do five things at once in that tiny space: yell to the attendants for towels, try not to elbow or spray the guy next to me, try to levitate in my seat–and nothing was really possible until I got my laptop put away and the tray table up, but I couldn’t do that until I got towels from the attendants to dry off the keyboard–all of this while I held on to a cup which still had enough water to make things worse, and my mouth had unswallowed Ibuprofen.

After I finally got up and had to apply towels to my crotch in front of a hundred or so people, the flight attendant helpfully (a) offered to change my seat cushion, which, having directed all of the moisture to my pants was not the least bit wet, and (b) stepped on my stocking foot with her heel.

While that was the highlight of the flight, the rest was not really all that much better.

It takes a lot to make a three-week trip back home not worth it. Flying economy comes pretty damned close.

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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:


November 29th, 2009 Comments off

When I first came to live in Japan, going back to the U.S. meant two things: visiting with family, and shopping. Shopping meant getting all the neat stuff that I couldn’t get in Japan–often including several pounds of See’s Candy (arguably the best chocolates to be found). Mostly, though, it involved a few trips to Costco, getting new shoes (shoe sizes in Japan traditionally have stopped at size 10 or so), English-language books, candy & other food goods, and so forth.

However, over the years, most of these goods have found their way to Japan, especially books, but also lots of food items. What isn’t sold in local stores is now available at Costco Japan, or via mail order from the Foreign Buyer’s Club. handles a lot of the rest, and prices on many goods that used to be a lot more expensive are now a lot more cheap.

Nevertheless, there remains a lot which is still worth buying in the U.S., and in order to make things run more smoothly, I now make an online order from Amazon a week or two before traveling, so everything is there–allowing for return or exchanges should something be damaged or not work. I thought that the list of stuff I found best to buy in the U.S. included interesting perspective on what international buying is still like.


Blu-Rays. Now that Sachi and I have a Blu-Ray player, it’s about time we got some Blu-Ray movies. Unfortunately, the local rental shop, typical of Japan, has a depressingly paltry selection of Blu-Ray titles, and most new DVD releases don’t even have Blu-Ray versions. What’s up with that? Blu-Ray is a Japanese standard, made by Sony. I have a student who loves “Fast and the Furious,” and insists that the Blu-Ray is not available in Japan–but it is in the U.S.

Add to this the fact that Blu-Ray regions conveniently put America and Japan in the same region, and you got good reason to buy–especially from the U.S., where again, things are much cheaper.

The Ultimate Matrix ($52 U.S., $171 in Japan). This one makes extra sense, given that if put in a Japanese player, Japanese language options appear. And it just seems like a natural Blu-Ray movie, being primarily visual in its appeal.

Kung-Fu Panda ($24 U.S., $44 in Japan). The movie is good, but that’s not the reason I’m getting it. In 1080p Blu-Ray, it’s stunning. When Sachi and I rented it–the first Blu-Ray movie we saw–our jaws (well, my jaw) dropped to the floor. Subtle textures in fabrics, for example, stood out in a way which I am certain are invisible in lower resolutions. The detail is simply fantastic. And it’s a funny movie.

Contact ($17 U.S., $27 in Japan). This is one of my favorite movies–a great story, well-made. Despite having one of the lowest price differences between the U.S. and Japan, this one comes with Japanese subtitles in the U.S. version.

Wall•E ($18 U.S., $42 in Japan). A good movie, one that should be great in Blu-Ray, and doesn’t need subtitles nearly as much as almost any other mainstream contemporary movie out there.

I, Robot ($13 U.S., $34 in Japan). I like it, it’s cheap, and reports say that it’s another stunner in Blu-Ray. It’s also one of those movies that depends a lot on visuals.

Star Trek ($20 U.S. [3-disc w/ digital copy], $42 in Japan [2-disc]). This is one which probably won’t have Japanese subtitles, but it matters less–the technobabble is babble anyway. This is just a film I like–ironically, it probably won’t shine as much in Blu-Ray, as the film was shot in a less-than-sharp manner, with even the effects shots having fake dirt and dust on the lens.

And that brings me to an observation about Blu-Rays: you can’t count on the extra resolution making a difference sometimes. With some films, the extra definition simply isn’t there, and with others, the transfer to Blu-Ray was made with a lower-resolution copy. Sometimes I’ve watched a Blu-Ray and wondered if the DVD would really be any worse. But sometimes, the quality of the movie is pretty incredible.

Mdp-HdmiMini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter Cable ($8).

Macs have always been less than universal about video ports. For a while some models had S-video and/or DVI, but for a while now they have more custom ports for which you have to buy adapters. The latest is a non-Apple standard, the DisplayPort cable. While Apple does have a hand in its development, it’s not a proprietary Apple technology. Alas, it is also not used by anyone else at present, at least not that I can see, and so cables are not in abundance.

In particular, I have wanted a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter so I can hook up to my HDTV more easily–but I cannot find any such cables in Japan, period. So I’m getting one when I go back home.

Motos305Motorola S305 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones ($40).

This comes under the category of “too expensive in Japan.” Amazon Japan sells these puppies for $76. And outside of places like Amazon, finding anything Bluetooth is hard to do. Bluetooth mice are rare here, much less stereo headphones like these.

A friend bought a pair of S9’s, which are essentially the same but have ear buds instead of the muff-style pads. I really prefer the pads. And the S305 reportedly works quite well with iPhone OS 3. I only hope that they don’t break too easily–but at $40, I don’t feel it’s so great a risk.

OnthegoKool-Aid Sugar Free On the Go, Tropical Punch ($20, 6-pack).

I got hooked on these when I stumbled across them a few years ago. Pour one into a bottled water, and you got instant no-calorie juice. Japanese people seem to be averse to powdered drinks, the exception being sports drinks. But something like “Kool-Aid” is unknown here. When I use one of these in class, my students frown and act like I’m making haggis or something.

So far, no one offers this in Japan–not Costco, not FBC, no local stores, no import shops. I guess it’s one of those things that Japanese people won’t go for. (Same goes for the flavor–you just don’t see Tropical Punch here.) If so, it’s probably just because they don’t know what it is. Like Pimenton, it’s a great product that’s just unknown. For me, these help as I am trying to avoid sugar drinks.

That’s all for today–more soon. (I ordered a lot of stuff!)

Honeymoon, Day 16 — Walk Through Old Rome, Part III

May 5th, 2009 Comments off

After leaving the church, we headed toward the Roman Forum, stopping for a break first at the Piazza Venezia, called the hub of modern Rome, in front of the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II. Mussolini used to give speeches here. We had some gelato.

Nmv Emmanuelii-01

Behind the monument is the Roman Forum, essentially the central area of ancient Rome. It is a large historical area, like the Ancient Agora in Athens, where visitors can come in and walk around among many of the ancient buildings.

One thing about this area and ones like it: it is very inconvenient to walk in unless you are well-informed, well-prepared, and arrive at just the right locations. With such a huge site, one would expect there to be at least a few places where you could get in. Not so. We had to walk halfway around it before finding an entrance. Later, when we went into the Palatino, we had a similar experience: you have to come out the same way you came in, which means backtracking quite a distance. Sachi and I didn’t look these things up in advance and wound up walking ourselves ragged trying to figure out the entrances and exits.

Roman Forum-00

Roman Forum-01

Roman Forum-02

Roman Forum-03

Roman Forum-04

Roman Forum-06

Roman Forum-07

Roman Forum-Temp Cast-Poll

Even back in those days, they loved huge doors. So I guess it’s a traditional thing.

Roman Forum-05

Another common sight is the celebratory arches.

Arch Of Ss-01A

Arch Of Ss-01

Called the “Arch of Titis,” what’s written is “Tito.”

Arch Of Tito

And the final arch, of Constantine.

Arch Of Constantine

Right across from that is the Colosseum. Instead of boring you with the traditional view, I thought I’d focus on less-traditional ones. We wondered, by the way, at all the holes in it, and later discovered that although some were for scaffolding, most were made by scavengers over history digging in and taking away metal parts of the building. In fact, much of the building’s missing parts are due more to using the building as a source of raw material than because of other kinds of damage. Italians call it “Swiss Cheese.”





Outside were the inevitable centurions, a cute dress-up element seen in historical areas of Rome.


On the southeast side, there is the church’s placard.



It was a bit late in the day to go in, so Sachi and I just looked from the outside, deciding to see the inside the next day.




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Honeymoon, Day 16 — Walk Through Old Rome, Part II

May 5th, 2009 1 comment

After we left the Piazza del Popolo, we walked due west. We had not intended to walk so far north and had planned to just go directly back into the old town to Plaza Navona, but since we had gone so far, we decided to cross the Tiber and walk to the Castel Sant’Angelo. We stopped along the bank when we found a nice cafe, and had some snacks–mine resembling a grilled-cheese-and-ham sandwich.


We then took the back streets to the castle, thinking we could walk onto the grounds from there, but you can’t–so we had to walk all the way around the star-shaped complex until we got to the front again. We decided not to go into the museum (we would not have gone halfway through our planned walk had we went into every interesting exhibit), but we did rest outside for a few minutes before crossing the Bridge of Hadrian. The castle was originally Hadrian’s tomb, though it and the bridge Hadrian built leading to it have been pretty completed taken over by Christian iconography.

Castel Sant Angelo-01

Bridge Of Angels-01



After crossing the bridge into central Rome, we took another tangent to lead us to the northern end of Piazza Navona. On the way, we walked along some of the old, narrow streets that we love so much.

Old Rome Street

The Piazza Navona was recommended to us, and was a nice stop, but nothing overly spectacular. The fountain in the center was nice, and we enjoyed the musicians playing at the south end of the plaza.

Piazza Navona-01

Piazza Navona-02

Navona Musicians

One thing you’ll see a lot of are street performers. Interestingly, many seem to be common between many cities in Europe–we saw almost identical acts in many places. A common one seen often is the Egyptian Sarcophagus, but an interesting one is the Invisible Man–a guy seated on a chair below a hat and sunglasses, with his head hidden beneath the collar. Here’s one such guy enjoying a break.

Invisible Man

Next stop: The Pantheon. From Greek meaning “every god,” it was originally a Roman temple for the worship of all gods, but nowadays it’s just used for the only one really left in Rome these days. The day we visited, it was closed, and everyone was reduced to peeking through a crack in the door. But the outside is impressive enough.

click on the image above for a larger version of this stitched-together panoramic view.



On the way from the Pantheon, we saw and stopped at the Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva, a gothic church built in 1280 over the remains of a temple for Isis (but thought to be for Minerva). This is where Galileo renounced his scientific findings. A beautiful church, with some less-than-beautiful history. And big front doors…

Bigger Doors

I was a bit surprised that they allowed photos inside.

Smaria Interior-00

Smaria Interior-01

Smaria Interior-03

This stained-glass window was particularly attractive.

Smaria Interior-02A

Smaria Interior-02B

Greater detail here.

The final leg of the walk coming next.

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Honeymoon, Day 16 — Walk Through Old Rome, Part I

May 3rd, 2009 Comments off

Sachi and I were never sure of the weather. As I mentioned before, probably 80% or more of the days we were there were slated for rain in the weather forecasts, only to clear up most of the time. Still, we did not want to press our luck, and since rain was forecast for the next day, we decided to do all of our walking tours in the one good-weather day we were fairly sure of. By the end of the day, we had walked at least 10 km (as measured by Google Maps Distance Calculator), not counting the backtracking and walking around inside places like the Roman Forum. This is what the walk eventually looked like:

Walking Map

We started out at the Spanish Steps, a tourist spot which is apparently used mostly for sitting and chatting, at least for tourists. There is a big floral display, and across the plaza there is a market street.

Spanish Steps-00

Spanish Steps-01

We then headed south, and stopped along the way for gelato. From the incredible abundance of pizzerias and gelato shops, I can only conclude that those two foods are the foundation of a typical Roman’s diet.

Rome Gelato-01

By the way, a note on Roman pizza: multiple toppings are not a big thing. Usually there are only one or two toppings, and despite looking carefully, I never found a pizza that had more than one meat topping. Prosciutto was common (and delicious!), and I found hot salami (I presume the same as pepperoni, but not called that), and sausage of some sort… but not together. A lot of pizzas were short on cheese also, at least from an American standpoint.

This is not to say that I didn’t eat a lot of it!


Also found everywhere are tourist stalls, everything kitschy that you can imagine. Big sellers seem to include short pants with Michelangelo’s David’s nether regions printed on them, and hand-drawn caricatures of Sylvester Stallone. T-shirts, bags, calendars, magnets, statuettes, caps, scarves–everything you can imagine they could sell they sell. A lot of street artists have their work on display, and a lot of musicians play for spare change. (Accordions are big in Europe, I noticed.)

Tourist Attr


We made our way to Trevi Fountain, where legend has it that if you toss a coin into the fountain over your shoulder, you are assured to return to Rome some day. Some €3000 are thrown into the fountain every day (it’s collected and used to fund a supermarket for the poor). Sachi did it when she visited Rome in her younger days, and there she was, back again, so I figure it works. We did it together, and so we’ll probably be back some day.

Trevi Fountain

Next, we hit the Piazza Colonna, which features the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This was a monument built to honor the emperor’s war efforts, illustrated in the relief sculptures spiraling up the column.

Col Marcus Aurelius

Column Detail

Something that I noticed in Rome was that the Catholic Church seems to have a habit of branding everything of note. This column was built for Marcus Aurelius, who, while not particularly anti-Christian, was not an avid pro-Christian, either, and under his reign, Christians suffered. So why is there a statue of St. Paul atop the column? The thing is, it’s not just this; any number of pre-Christian monuments, all of the major ones that I could see, are in some way stamped with the cross or other Christian icons. The various Egyptian obelisks all are capped by crucifixes, and the Colosseum has a prominent Christian placard installed. While some Christian history has taken place at and around these sites, slapping Christian symbols and signs on them smacks a bit of territoriality. I’m just saying. It kind of stood out.

St Paul-Cap

Moving on, we went north, intending to stop somewhere along the Via del Corso, but we overshot and ended up at the Piazza del Popolo, dominated by an obelisk of Ramesses II (again, note the crucifix cap).

Popolo Obelisk

The plaza is ringed by churches and fountains, and is a nice place to relax. However, you also have to watch out for the hucksters. Several people of south Asian origin were wandering the plaza with bunches of roses. They walk up to couples and offer them a few as a “gift for the beautiful lady.” I made very clear that I had no intention of buying any, telling the guy that we were walking all day and could not carry flowers. He insisted, and I said, even for free, we could not, because we had no place to keep long-stemmed roses. Still, he refused to acquiesce, and just to get rid of him, we said, OK, we’ll take them, intending to hand them off to someone else first chance we got. But of course, the guy would not leave. He stayed planted in front of us, trying to do something for a tip. He offered to take a photo and we declined. In the awkward silence after that, his eyes darted this way and that, and then he put our his hand and made the finger-rubbing gesture for cash.

We gave him back the flowers.

Flower Man

More on the walk through Old Rome later–it’s getting late, and there’s too much here for one post.

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Honeymoon, Day 15 — Onward to Rome

May 2nd, 2009 3 comments

Due to the early flight into Italy, we arrived early as well–a bit after 10 am. We came through Leonardo da Vinci airport, and found our way to the trains, where I found some weirdness in ticket pricing.

In fact, in Greece, we had a similar problem. Arriving, the cost of the ticket charged us from the airport to Omonia Station was €4 apiece. Leaving, it was €5. Either we were undercharged coming in or overcharged going out. Seeing as how on the departure trip it was so early that no one was around and the ticket seller was somewhat rude, I have a suspicion that we were overcharged.

In Rome, buying tickets for the Leonardo Express, everything around us said it was €11 per person–our guide book and even the prices listed on the ticket window. But when I bought the tickets, I was charged €12 per person. Later, someone at a ticket office run by the same company tried to claim that it was some sort of commission fee. The problem is, when I asked a few Italian passengers on the train what they were charged, they all said they were asked to pay only €11. Something smells wrong there. Is it SOP in some European countries for train ticket sellers to rip off tourists?

In any case, I eventually discovered that I had bought from a private ticket seller at da Vinci. I always assumed that train tickets were sold by the train line, and it was not freelanced right there in the station. If you can, find the official sales booth.

When we got to Termini Station, we had another problem: we just followed the crowd leaving our car of the train. This led us to the diametrically opposite corner of the station we intended to come out from–and it’s a big station. It took us 15 minutes to even understand where we were, and then quite a bit of time after that to walk all the way round after that. I should have paid more attention–I knew that we should have walked in the direction the trains were traveling, which would have saved us a lot of time, effort, and confusion. Ah well.

This time around, we didn’t stay in a hotel. Instead, we found a place called “Delia Accommodation,” referred to in places as a “bed and breakfast.” A family (Delia, her husband and her daughter) have a floor of apartments (single room plus bath), and rent them out to visitors. On the plus side, the rooms are nice, centrally located, and cheap (for Rome). On the down side, it is less than full-service, and the place is kind of hard to find. On hotel review sites, a common complaint was the inability to find the place–it is marked only by a small placard next to the door, and you have to enter into a courtyard, enter a locked building, and take a narrow elevator up to the 4th floor. If doors are locked, you have to buzz the front desk to be let in–and the front desk is often unoccupied. Thanks to Google Street View, however, I was able to figure out where to go exactly, and when we arrived, we just happened to catch Delia’s husband who waved us in.

Another benefit of the place is that there’s a great, reasonably-priced restaurant (“La Famiglia”) right downstairs. We ordered their 1-liter beer, and found it to be a lot bigger than we thought–we got a few laughs from an adjacent table (everyone else was having bottled water), and we thought it was pretty funny ourselves.

La Famiglia

Prosciutto Pizza

Giant Beer

After getting settled, we researched the local neighborhood, identifying a supermarket and laundry shop within a few blocks of the Delia. In the supermarket, I noted a Japanese snack, called “Pocky” in Japan–but dubbed “Mikado” in Italy. I have to wonder if it was made by the same company and simply rebranded.


Then we set out on a longer walk, which ended up being about 4 km. We went to the Plaza of the Republic. On one side there was a basilica with interesting door panels. We didn’t go inside until later in the trip.

Plaza Of The Republic


Basilica Doors

One thing we noticed pretty early on is that a lot of doors to residences in Rome are big. This was true to the residence we stayed in as well as most apartment buildings.

Giant Door

As we walked up the avenue to the north of the plaza, we noticed a whole bunch of five-star hotels, which made Sachi swoon. She has a thing for such hotels, and at some time in the future we’ll undoubtedly stay at one–when we can afford the ridiculous prices…

We also stopped by a wine shop, which was staffed by a very good salesman who sold us a bottle of Pinot Nero, which we enjoyed over the following few evenings.

Wine Shop

One thing jumped out at us, though: Rome is a beautiful city. Especially just after leaving Athens, which (aside from the historical areas) is a very unattractive city. But Rome, everything was postcard perfect. Classical buildings, cobblestone streets, cozy restaurants, and very clean.

Rome Street-01

Rome Street-02

Rome Street-04

Rome Street-03

After it got dark, and not too far from the hotel, it started to rain–making the streets even more beautiful. One of my favorite images:

Rainy Roman Street

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