Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tsuru Viewing

From the museum, it's a 20 bus minute ride to the Crane Center view site. For the most part, it's along city streets. At one point, though, the bus makes a sharp turn into a narrow one-lane path, rubs shoulders against the shops on either side, then comes out in the middle of a bunch of rice paddies before skirting the coastline and heading back inland a couple of blocks and stopping next to some souvenir stands. A hundred feet away is the main viewing building, and the sound of the cranes calling can be heard nearly a block away. There were some cranes hanging out in a few rice fields in the area leading up to the parking lot, and a couple took off or landed as we drove by, but the main bulk of the nesting population were standing around behind the viewing building. From a distance, they sound like, and kind of look like, geese. The strong smell of bird poop was also geese-like.

The weather had gotten cold that morning, at least around freezing, which made handling the camera a bit difficult. The main spot for watching the birds is along the left side of the building, where a barrier had been set up to prevent people from getting closer to them. My camera tried to do a good job at that distance, which may have been 50 yards, but it was out of its league. Most of the shots came out grainy. It didn't help that the sky was overcast, and at one point a light rain blew through the region (it was gone a few minutes later). If you listen to the youtube video, you can hear how windy it was (as well as how noisy the people were that insisted on walking up next to me and then shouting at each other).

The birds fly pretty fast. I had a lot trouble keeping them in the viewfinder, and the camera couldn't focus fast enough to get any real good shots. Along with the hooded and white-naped cranes, there were some black crows, a bunch of sparrows, at least one duck, and a couple of pure-white herons.

At one point I figured I might as well get a snack. The stalls at the parking lot were selling large cups of sliced, sugared, deep-fried sweet potato (Satsuma sato-imo is a local product and is used in a variety of things, like soft-serve ice cream) for 210 yen. The owner decided to treat me to the place of honor next to the gas stove, so I sat around for 15 minutes chatting with him and his two female co-workers, eating molten fried sweet potato and drinking hot tea.

I returned to the main building and explored it for a while, including the souvenir shop (picked up some sweetened freeze-dried fruit and 3 small bottles of shochu) and the 2nd-floor observation deck (210 yen entry fee, waived because I had the bus pass). And since I was there, I felt I had to make the most of the trip by eating lunch in the first-floor cafeteria. I got a big bowl of champon for 650 yen. It's kind of like ramen, except with a heavier broth, and thicker udon noodles. That was particularly satisfying given how long I'd been outside in the cold. The time flowed by pretty quick. At 1:15, I jumped on the return bus, watched the samurai residences slip past (I'd visited a couple of them 2 years before) and got back to the Izumi train station with 40 minutes to kill before the next bullet train would arrive at 2:20 PM. From there, it was another 25-minute ride back to Kagoshima, and a 15-minute walk to the apartment. Door to door, the day trip had taken almost 6.5 hours. It was worth it.

(Souvenir stands, including the one where I bought the fried sweet potato sticks.)

Youtube video

I think that next time, I'll make sure to bring a more high-end camera with me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tsuru Museum

When I came down to Kyushu 2 years ago, following the big earthquake and meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, I stayed in Izumi, a small farming town on the west side of the island, for 1 week. It's 30 minutes from Kagoshima by bullet train. It's also the location of a protected wetlands area that's the winter nesting site for about 13,000 hooded and white-naped cranes. At the time, it was April, and the cranes had already long returned to China and Siberia. They start arriving in Izumi in October and start flying back at the beginning of February. It's the only tourist attraction Izumi has, so this year I kind of wanted to go back up to see the cranes before the season ended.

Live webcam link.

The bullet train is 6,200 yen round-trip ($70 USD), but the station is about 10 miles from the main viewing area. From researching the web, I found that there's a tour bus that leaves from the west side of the station once an hour, stopping at the Crane Park Izumi Museum, then at the view site, followed by a trip to the old homes of the Edo-era samurai that used to control the area, before finally coming back to the station. 1,000 yen gets you a day pass, so you can get on and off the bus as you like, plus free entry to the museum and crane viewing observation deck. I jumped on the bullet train at 9 AM Sunday, Jan. 27, and got to Isumi at 9:25. I ran to the bus circle, but I didn't really need to; I still had 10 minutes before it would depart. I paid my money to the driver, and he gave me a badge on a lanyard.

A quick 10-minute ride got me to the museum. There were only 5 passengers, and I was the only one to get out here. In fact, I was the only visitor inside the museum while I was there. Outside, about 20 people were playing golf on the course nearby, but inside, it was just me and the building staff. Which did play in my favor, because they spent a lot of extra time making sure I had English copies of all the brochures, that I knew I could use the rubber stamps to put pictures of the cranes on a bookmark, and that I'd be able to catch the next bus an hour later.

It's a very nice building, with lots of information on a wide variety of cranes, plus audio-visual displays showing animations of the cranes, and a retelling of the old crane-woman folktale. Unfortunately, the big theater was closed, though. Part of the exhibit includes examples of cranes in traditional artwork, such as on illustrated mirrors and kimono, plus the obligatory origami.

The amazing this about this specific origami, though, is that it's based on Hiden Senbazuru Origata (the secret folding of 1000 cranes), which was published in 1797. Each design is made from a single sheet of paper that has been pre-cut in a way to allow each of the cranes to look like they're kissing, wing-tip to wig-tip, or stacked on each other's backs. This is a lot more complicated than anything else I've ever seen using origami cranes.

(Photos showing variations of the single-sheet techniques.)

(View of the surrounding landscape. This part of Kyushu is very hilly. The weather wasn't very cooperative, either.)

At 10:42, the next bus arrived and I continued on towards the western coast, and the crane viewing site.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Team Us

Back in September, I'd talked about a possible cameo appearance in Greg Craven's Hubris webcomic. Greg was planning a story arc where different teams would compete against each other in an outdoor fest, and he'd asked his readers to submit photos if they wanted to be on certain teams.  I'd requested to be included, but there was no guarantee, and no real schedule as to when the teams would start showing up.

Well, Team Us finally showed its face on Jan. 17

Monday, January 28, 2013

Anime Bar Nana Review

I mentioned Anime Bar Nana close to a year ago, shortly before I got hit by a car. After my foot healed 5 months later to the point where I could go exploring again, I couldn't find the place. I hiked all over the southern end of Tenmonkan where I thought I remembered seeing the sandwich board, but nothing. That's when I made a comment in my blog that it may have closed. Actually, I just didn't go west far enough. While cutting through a different set of streets at the south end, close to Terakuni shrine, I saw the sign again, and this time I took better notes for how to get back when it was open.

Nana operates at night, and is closed Mondays. The hours are:
Tue.-Sun. 7 PM - 4 AM

There's no real food on offer, and while the drink menus do show individual prices, they operate more as a "nomihodai" (all you can drink) with a fixed price of 2,000 yen ($24 USD) per person. Most places serve beer for 500 yen per glass, while cocktails and mixed drinks are 600-800 yen. Meaning you need at least 4 beers or 3-4 mixed drinks to justify the nomihodai cost. They do have a full bar, and can mix up just about anything, plus there are a couple "original drinks" that are served in glasses with anime character prints.

But, people don't really go to Nana's for the alcohol. This is a place to hang out, talk about anime and watch Gundam episodes on the TV near the bar. The PA system was playing Lupin the 3rd theme music that night.

The bartender had gone to Tokyo over the New Year break to pick up more figures and stuff from Akihabara. Can never have too much anime stuff.

No one there spoke English the night I came in, but were more than happy to talk to me in Japanese about the shows I like, and the ones that they recommend. Very friendly people. It's just that I can't justify spending 2,000 yen every week on only 2 or 3 beers, not if I have to get up and work the next morning...

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Infinity is a coffee and magic shop on the 2nd floor of a building in the Tenmonkan shopping complex, near the Maruzen bookstore, close to Terukuni shrine (it's across the alley from the new JAXA museum, and about 30 yards north of Anime Bar Nana). Along with coffee (individually hand-prepared, 600 yen per cup), the owner performs close-up magic and tarot readings, and there's a collection of supplies for sale and a small stage for larger magic performances.  Plus, two cages with a pair of parakeets. I'm not sure which days Infinity is open, but it looks to be just on the weekends. When I arrived, there were 3 customers - 2 of whom spoke English. The owner doesn't, so the customers acted as interpreters for me. I mentioned that I used to work as a salesclerk at a magic shop in Minnesota when I was a teenager, so the owner showed me a short set of illusions that included the Chinese linking rings, and a few coin and card tricks. I already know how they're done, so it was just fun watching how smooth and natural he looked doing them. He's really good. Maybe at some point I'll order a magic show off the menu, which seems to be in the 2,000 yen range. Tarot readings are also 2,000 yen.

The owner of Infinity (left).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

New Year's Decoration

Mikan (oranges) and mochi (pounded rice cakes) are two of the symbols popular in Japan at the beginning of the new year. This display is at the entrance of the grocery store in the basement of Maruya gardens department store.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mardock Scramble, vol. 4

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

This is the last of the volumes I picked up from Book Off, 4 of a total of 7 in the series.
Mardock Scramble, vol. 4. By Tow Ubukata and drawn by Katsuya Terada. Grade: B-. The majority of the story now takes place on a secret space base, where the government experiments with psychic powers and cyborg technology. This is where Boiled had been created and lived before turning rogue. Rune recovers from her injuries at the hands of Boiled, but she's told that Oefcoque refuses to see her anymore. The mouse survived the mistreatment it had received, but needs a long recuperation period. She makes friends with a boy that can't feel emotions and learns her way around the facilities. Meanwhile, Boiled discovers that Fingers is still alive, and has him reoutfitted and delivered to the space base for revenge. The base's security consists of flying sharks and killer whales that only activate when they scent blood, so the boy allows himself to be dismembered in order to sound the alarm.

The sharks easily kill Fingers, but are defeated by Boiled. The base puts up a token fight to slow Boiled down, allowing Rune and Oefcoque to escape back to Earth. At the last moment, Rune gets access to the base's main servers and learns that Shell's weakness is that he's stored his extracted memories within 4 gambling chips at his casino. The volume ends with Dr. Easter, Oefcoque and Rune vowing to break the casino and get their hands on those four chips.

(Gag inside front cover.)

Unfortunately, the story is kind of veering off track. It had started out promisingly as an action combat series, then it devolves into a series of mindgames between the good guys and bad guys, literally with "high stakes". There's still a fair amount of gore this time, but it is offset with various jokes and funny setups. Not recommended for those underaged or easily offended.

(Sample artwork. The security sharks are sent after Boiled.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mardock Scramble, vol. 3

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposed only.)

Volume 3 of Mardock Scramble pretty much follows the misadventures and total humiliation of the remaining 4 members of Shell's new cyborg assassin group. All 5 had been recruited by an experimental unit of the military after having been severely injured during various battles. One had been left blind, the other with his hands cut off, the third with horrible mutilation of the face and scalp, etc.. After their cyborg upgrades, all 5 deserted the military and entered the criminal underground. They also developed perverse pleasure in taking the appropriate body parts of their victims and having them sewn on themselves.

Upon meeting Rune, they have to relive the exact same tortures all over again. Unfortunately, Rune gets caught up in her own "revenge bloodlust" and comes close to killing the gang, against Oefcoque's wishes (Oefcoque had been made by Boiled to kill a mountain of victims in the past and he doesn't want to do that again). In trying to fight against Rune, he starts bleeding with every shot she takes. Boiled shows up, kills off a few of the gang himself, and tries to take Oefcoque back. At the final minute, Dr. Easter arrives in a flying egg ship to haul Rune to the government's secret space base.

(Gag inside front cover.)

(Sample pages showing Rune falling and the egg ship coming to her rescue.)

Overall, this is another dark, gory book. Things lighten up a little in volume 4. The artwork is pretty good, especially the backgrounds. But much of the action looks posed and static, which is a strike against artist Katsuya Terada. Grade: B-.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mardock Scramble, vol. 2

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

I return you now to Mardock Scramble, a "hard-boiled" SF thriller featuring cyborg Rune Ballot, and her universal tool, Oefcoque. In volume 2, villain mastermind Shell Septinous sends out assassin Boiled to eliminate Rune, using Oefcoque against her. This fails, but just barely, resulting in a flashback demonstrating just how lousy her life has been so far (abused by her father; her brother exacts revenge for her by killing the old man, causing the family to break up with the brother in jail, her mother in an asylum and Rune on the streets; Rune being recruited into a prostitution ring; her eventual escape from the ring and hiding out as one of the homeless in a park; and finally being "rescued" by Shell and almost murdered. She steals Oefcoque back, escapes Boiled, and returned to Dr. Easter's lab.

Shell, meanwhile, is having his memories surgically removed and stored to disk, and he announces to his gang that he's happy to be starting an all new life. Which the gang suddenly learns means that he's removing it all - them included. A new gang of 5 cyborgs comes in and kills everyone, including the doctor, his nurse, and the nurse's young son. However, because Rune has managed to stay alive this long, Shell chose to have her memories reinstalled, and instructs Boiled to have the gang of 5 finish the job. Turns out that these 5 new killers like taking specific body parts from their victims and having them attached to their own bodies (eyes, fingers, skin, etc.) The first of the group, Fingers, enters Easter's lab, and is easily defeated by Rune and Oefcoque.

(Gag inside front cover. "Seijin" is "sage", and "tako" is "octopus". So, "octopus sage mask".)

(Sequence in which Boiled steals his former partner, Oefcoque, and forces it to turn into a gun to use against Rune.)

Volumes 2 and 3 are the darkest, most violent and graphic of the 4 I've seen so far. Not recommended to those underaged or easily offended.  Available in the U.S. from Kodansha Press. Grade B-.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cerebus, vol. 3

As a Christmas present, I received volume 3 of Cerebus the Aardvark, part 1 of the Church and State arc. This is a great book! If you like Cerebus, you know what I mean. If you've never heard of it, now's the time to run to Amazon and buy a copy to check it out. Lots of political intrigue, great art, and looks into the governmental and religious workings of Dave Sim's universe. The first time I read this, it was as individual monthly comics, so I didn't fully comprehend what was going on, not the way I could by going through all 500 pages in one big chunk. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Maruya Gardens Theater

Maruya Gardens is a department store on Tram Street, in the Tenmonkan shopping complex. In a way, it's more like a mall, in that each department has its own shop name and they seem to run independently of each other. I often visit the grocery store in the basement, and the bookstore on the 5th and 6th floors. The 7th floor is referred to as the rooftop garden, partly because half the floor is an outdoor plaza. There's a couple restaurants or eateries in the indoor space, plus a small art theater in what looks like a repurposed maintenance closet.

Entrance to the theater.

My interest this time was the George Melies special (poster in the upper right on the above sandwich board). George was a French illusionist and filmmaker, and he accidentally discovered the idea of trick film in 1896. This led to a career in producing quality special effects films from his garden movie studio up until 1908 or so. His most famous work was A Trip to the Moon (1902), which unfortunately wasn't protected by international copyright, and he lost out on the money made by American film pirates. He eventually ran up against "talkies" (movies with sound), and could no longer compete, and went bankrupt around 1913. By the 1920's, he was reduced to selling candy and toys at one of the French train stations. However, renewed interest in film and film history resulted in his being "discovered" by some newspaper reporters, and he was invited to take part in the film industry again following 1929. He died from cancer in 1938. Maruya Gardens had decided to show a 1-hour documentary that started out as a biography of Melies, before turning into a "how we restored A Trip to the Moon from the only existing black and white reel, plus bits and pieces from later hand-colored reels". After the documentary, they showed the fully restored 14-minute "A Trip to the Moon", with an original rock soundtrack.

The theater is essentially the size of an American living room, with a ceiling-mounted slide projector and quad speakers. Seating for a little over 36 people. 1,500 yen for adults, but you can get a 200 yen discount if you have a same-day receipt from one of the other shops.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I've been hearing a lot more about Kickstarter recently. If you're not familiar with it, it's a website used for raising funds to start new projects or to support existing ones. The Order of the Stick webcomic raised some serious money this way, in part by offering different premiums for people pledging money at different levels (kind of like what you get with the PBS pledge drives). One of my relatives likes helping out microbreweries on Kickstarter, and one of the premiums she got in return for her pledge was a Blink(1). Not needing it, she gave it to me as a Christmas present.

Blink(1) is a USB LED designed and produced by thingm. It's promoted as a "silent indicator" or "silent alarm" for things like letting you know if a particular person posted an update on Facebook, or a keyword shows up on Twitter. It's open source, and supposedly has support for both C++ and Java. So far, though, I haven't been able to find documentation for writing Java code for it, and there's no app for Facebook posts to-date. At the moment, the only real use is to put a line in a batch file to have it blink or turn on at the end of a script. And, it's just as easy to leave Facebook open and check it occasionally as it is to check if the LED is on. It's a cute idea, but not really useful for home applications, yet. I can see an application for it if you have a bunch of servers in a room and you want to quickly tell from a distance if one of them needs attention. In any case, it's something to play around with if you like hacking Java or C++ code.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Xavier Phonebox

I've written about Francis Xavier before. He's the Jesuit priest that brought Christianity to Japan. He landed first in Kagoshima, and there's a church dedicated to him near my apartment. Interestingly, this is the only themed phone booth I've seen in Kagoshima so far, located across the street from the church.

The phone booth is next to Xavier park, which also has a bronze statue of Xavier and 2 of his Japanese followers. I've posted pictures of it before, but this is the first night shot of it.