Saturday, January 31, 2015


Admittedly, these are paper figures of baby ducks and a seal taped up in a nursery school. But, the lesson to be learned here is that when you are facing one audience, you're mooning another one.

Be sure to moon the correct one.

Friday, January 30, 2015

GoComics Reader's Choice Contest

Back in December, the GoComics editors had what they called their Reader's Choice Contest. Anyone that entered had to submit the link to the specific strip that they thought was the best to appear on GoComics in 2014. I nominated Endtown, for Jan. 7, 2014. There were 5 winners announced, and I was one of them. The prizes were "archive-quality prints" of the strips of our choice. It's a very nice print, and I like it a lot.

(The original strip.)

This raises the number of GoComics contests that I've won to 7. I've mentioned the previous 5 rewards, but I arranged for #6, a kid's version of the Pearls Before Swine books, to be donated to a children's ward at a hospital, and I never had the actual book in my hands long enough to get a photo of it. Not a bad run so far.

And, I have already promised to pick a different artist for the next Reader's Choice contest, as long as he fulfills his promise to make the "greatest strip of the universe and all time and stuff" before the contest deadline (he may have to tell me which one it is, because I'm not so good at recognizing this kind of thing)...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Gas Pump

Ever wonder what the inside of a gas pump looks like? Me neither. But, I found a naked one near my apartment, and now I'm very intrigued. Show me more.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yumeno Ukyoni Saitemina

This almost seems like a joke. I'd heard that J-pop girls' idol group Momoiro Clover Z had teamed up on a song with KISS, but I didn't pay much attention to the story. Last night, as I was listening to the radio, this really hard-rock riff started playing, followed by the rest of the song, which, despite the cutesy female vocals, sounded good. I went to youtube to find the video. It was only posted on the 19th, and it already has over 1 million views. Not bad. The video itself mixes anime with live action footage. I'm not going to watch the video that much (only one of the girls can act to save her life), but I think the song itself is worth putting into heavy rotation. (lyrics by MCZ, music written and performed by KISS).

Yumeno Ukyoni Saitemina (The Blossoming Transient World)
direct youtube link

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Food's Communication

The word "communication" seems to have taken on a life of its own in Japan. The current spin is "shared emotions between people". In this case, it means "sharing the joy of food with others", although this is just a grocery truck. It might be more fun to pretend that Japanese people think that food uses trucks to talk to other food.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow Day

Over the weekend, Yamakataya department store hosted a "little kids snow day" in the open area in front of the Lotteria in Tenmonkan. They had an ice blower set up to make a small mound for even smaller kids to sled on. Not a lot of participation, and at the time the ice was melting into a big block, so the staff spent the next 10-15 minutes resurfacing it.

As I was taking pictures, little kids walking by with their families would see some of the ice out on the walkway, and their faces would just light up as they ran to make snowballs with it. Kagoshima normally doesn't get enough snow for it to build up on the ground at all. On the other hand, the air temp is cold enough right now that the ice for the sled hill has taken several days to fully melt.

The machine looks like a repurposed wood chipper.

Notice the big blocks of ice in the background it uses as source material.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Loud Bird

One afternoon, I was walking home from the school and just as I got out from Tenmonkan I heard some VERY loud singing coming from somewhere up and to my right. It took me a few seconds to spot the little guy making all the noise, although no one else seemed to be paying him any attention. I think he was complaining about having to share the neighborhood with all the ground apes.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, part 2

Labyrinth of Forgotten Time really is an addictive game, even though I complained about not liking Rogue-likes. I'd pretty much done everything that I felt like completing (maxing out all the job skill levels for the jobs I could unlock; testing, and failing at, the unlockable special dungeons; and reading all of the letters sent by the NPCs for accomplishing various milestones (maxing the job skills, or reaching particular floors in the 100-floor Chocobo Memories dungeon). The only thing that remained was Sid's dungeon, and after having spent a couple of hours on that as part of the main storyline, I wasn't all that interested in finishing it. However...

When you're playing Chocobo, there are four main "normal"  dungeons, housing the Fire, Water, Light and Darkness crystals. You're allowed to take items, potions, talons (weapon) and saddles (armor) in and out of these dungeons, and you get experience, job points and money as you do all your fighting. The dungeons themselves have a fantasy feel to them, and are populated with various monsters, elementals and magic users. Occasionally you'll find a special white gate that randomly teleports you to either one of 2 in-dungeon shops, or to a "duel room" to fight a mini-boss. According to the 2 English walkthroughs I've seen, at one point Chocobo has to locate his partner, the human treasure hunter, Sid, and talk to him to advance the story. Sid is standing in front of the Fire dungeon, and both walkthroughs state that you just get a short cutscene.

But, instead, I found myself in another dungeon, filled with machines and monitored by some kind of computer A.I. Sid himself had to explore the dungeon to get the notebooks of one Dr. Glen, a researcher who had tried to harness the elements to make his own weapons. The A.I. mistakes Sid for it's creator, indicating that the scientist may be Sid's father or grandfather. According to one Japanese walkthrough, Sid's dungeon only exists in the Japanese version of the game written only for the Gameboy DS (it's not available in the Wii version).

(Sid's top-screen status display, showing weapon, armor and accessory equipped, and Health, SP and "Stomach" (hunger level).)

Like the Chocobo's Memories dungeon (unlocked only after you beat the storyline boss), Sid's is 100 floors deep. You have to get to floor 30 within the main storyline, but after that it's blocked until you beat the main Chocobo storyline boss. This is a pure Rogue-like. You can't bring anything into the dungeon, and you always start at level 1 on floor 1. The game does store your inventory for you, so you can keep much of what you find, and you can upgrade your weapons and armor, but essentially Chocobo and Sid have completely incompatible inventories. There is one exception to the rule of not bringing anything out of the dungeon - Sid's dungeon also has the white portals, but there's no in-dungeon shop. You're always teleported to the duel room to face a mini-boss. Defeating the mini-boss gives you items that Sid hands to Chocobo because he can't use them himself, including pop-up duel cards and a few superior healing potions not available in Chocobo's dungeons.

Sid uses a pistol as his sole weapon, and his coat acts as armor. There are no shops, so no money. Sid only has one job (treasure hunter) but no upgrade path, so no job points. He starts out with one special skill, an "A.R.T.S." that uses up all 7 skill bars in one super shot. The skill bars refill very, very slowly as he walks around, so the A.R.T.S. attacks are best kept in reserve for the mini-bosses, or if you get in over your head at the lower levels. You always have the option of exiting the dungeon when you get to the stairs down to the next floor, and the Telepo potions teleport you out as well. Because there's no money, there's no way to sell items, potions or equipment you find. Rather, you discard what you don't want, or run out of room to carry, or store things in a "locker" found at the computer rooms on the 10th, 20th, 30th, 50th, 70th and 98th floors. You'll also find research notes in these computer rooms that unlock your next A.R.T.S. attack, with a total of 4 special attacks.

(Sid, standing in front of the storage locker in the research floor. The blue bars at the middle top of the screen represent SP; all 7 bars are burned whenever you use one of the 4 A.R.T.S. special attacks.The "100%" at the top right is for "Stomach" (hunger); when this goes to 0%, you start taking physical damage. When the heart bar at the top left goes to 0 you die and it's game over.)

Within the dungeons (each floor is randomly generated) you can find potions, items and equipment. The point to picking up items like mithral bars and silk cloth is that sometimes you encounter a replicator machine, which is used for upgrading equipment. There are 7 kinds of guns, and 2 kinds of coats. Each type uses different items for the upgrades, and the number of upgrades, abilities and max specs depend on the starting type of gun or coat you use. One type of gun can only be upgraded twice, making for less work in finding the required items, but is strong only against elementals, and only applies the "Slow" status attack to the enemies. That one has a starting attack strength of 1, with a maximum of strength of 100. The regular coat can be upgraded 18 times, for a maximum defense of 145. There's a special coat, the Chocobo Suit, found at the bottom of the dungeon with a starting defense of 1, and only 1 upgrade, but that upgrade, if you can accomplish it, gives a maximum 149 defense, and you don't get hungry as fast (meaning you don't have to worry about running out of food before reaching the final boss on floor 99.) Unfortunately, the upgrade requires 99 diamonds and 99 Chocobo Feathers, and I've only been able to average 5 diamonds and 3 Feathers per trip, and diamonds are only available between floors 76 and 97. It's taken a LONG time to get all the items needed for that upgrade...

I have a couple complaints about this part of the game. First, the music gets very repetitive very quickly, so I have the volume turned off. Second, the game is specifically designed so that you have to keep going through every room on every single floor many, many times. And it can take 3-4 hours just to go from floor 1 to floor 70, so you have to expect that it will take 2 weeks before you can finally get strong enough to face the boss on floor 99.

(Sid, with 2 enemies (a sleeping bat and a Tonberry), plus the red switch for a bomb trap at the upper left.)

What I mean is, one of the better weapons is the Arutairu (Altair). It starts with an attack of 8, and can be upgraded 10 times, for a max attack of 149. Each upgraded version of the weapon gets its own name (Capella, Vega, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Los Arugety (sp?), Aldebaran, Spica, etc.) To go from Aldebaran to Spica requires 32 Crystals, 16 bone fragments, 30 Emeralds and 20 Dark Ore. Crystals and Dark Ore are easy to come by, and are actually two of the most common monster drops. Emeralds can only be found on floors 30 through 69, and the most I've found in one trip is 10. Bone fragments can be found anywhere from floor 2 to 98, but the average is about 5 per trip. And that's just one upgrade. In total, for the gun and the regular coat, I need 140 bone fragments, and 150 Emeralds. The super coat above needs 99 Diamonds, 99 Crystals, 99 Chocobo Feathers, and 99 Velvet cloths. After delving into the dungeons at least 10 times, the farthest down I've been able to go without being killed (and losing everything) is floor 74, and I only have 5 Velvet cloths, 26 Chocobo feathers, and no Diamonds. As mentioned, just to get to floor 70 takes 3-4 hours, and I'm expecting at least 2-3 trips just to get enough items for one upgrade of the gun. Because the coat also requires Emeralds for the next upgrade, that's another 2-3 trips to boost the coat, too. One good thing, though, is that with each upgrade, Sid can hold out a bit longer against the tougher monsters, letting him go down another 2-5 floors before being overwhelmed. Still, that's a lot of churning just to get a small amount of improvement out of just one weapon.

A comment on the Duel Room mini-bosses. There are 5: Golem (floors 11-25), Stone Golem (26-50), Mithral Golem (51-75), Goliate (76-97) and Mini-Tendar (11-97). They hand out 600 to 1000 exp when defeated, and you can pick up some Crystals, and a few special attack bullets for the gun. I think, depending on the last one you beat per run, you get one item to hand to Chocobo when you exit the dungeon. As your weapon improves, your A.R.T.S. attacks will put a maximum of 999 hits on the Golem bosses. You only get the one special shot per battle, unless you have ethers for quickly replenishing spell points during the fight. This will be an important point for me to keep in mind, because the final boss on floor 99 has a rumored 6,500 hit points... This is why upgrading the gun to its ultimate point, and getting the regular coat up to a defense of 145 is going to be so important. It's going to be a l-o-n-g final battle.

(Sid, in front of the replicator used for weapon and armor upgrading. Towards the bottom of the screen are the stairs down to the next floor.)

So, if it's going to take months of sporadic game play and hundreds of runs through the dungeon to beat the final boss, what's the pay off? You can't sell unneeded items, and Sid doesn't receive money or skill points. Well, there is supposed to be a secret ending CG just for Sid, and it's just on the Japanese Gameboy version. And, it turns out that there is a minor purpose to unused items. When you click on items in your inventory that are used for coat and gun upgrades, you get three options - Experiment, Drop, and Description. If you have a large enough quantity of a given item, "experimenting" lets you turn them into something else. Often it's something you can easily find in the dungeons, like cookies (for appeasing hunger), special bullets, or +1 potions for improving the gun and coat stats. But rarely, very rarely, you'll get other items, such as 1 or 2 Bone fragments, or 3 Diamonds. If you don't have enough of the item, experimenting with it will fail and you'll lose all of that item that you're carrying.

In short, Sid's dungeon is an interesting addition to the Chocobo game, but pretty much no one outside of Japan will ever see it (nor will anyone within Japan playing only on the Wii). It's just that it's the definitive example of a Rogue-like, and all Rogue-likes depend too heavily on luck. For Sid's dungeon in particular, needing to spend hours on just one run-through to get supplies to do just one mid-level coat or gun upgrade, makes it a major waste of time in the long-run. On the other hand, I often spend a couple hours a night on the PC playing solitaire games, so maybe the trick will be to limit myself to an hour a day on Sid's dungeon in place of playing solitaire.


Sigh. After writing the above, I put pretty much a solid week (what can I say, I had a long New Year's break) into the game. Doing so, I managed to defeat the final boss on floor 99. I followed this by upgrading one of the guns to an attack of 149 and the regular coat to a defense of 145. This is about the best you can get short of finding another 200 Diamonds (I could only get 35) for upgrading a different gun and the Chocobo Suit.

Beating the boss just gave me a series of still images of Sid (with Chocobo, and while fighting monsters) and a new set of ending credits. Unless there was an embedded Romantic Message that I missed for getting a Pop-up Duel Card, there was nothing to exit the dungeon with to give to Chocobo. In fact, the end credits say that Sid was teleported somewhere and never seen again. Which was a little weird when I rebooted the game and found him standing in front of Chocobo acting like they'd just first met. After this, I could reenter the dungeon and I still had my inventory from the end of the boss battle, and I could run back down to floor 99 to fight the boss again. Still, it's kind of anti-climatic, playing the game for over 2 weeks, just to get a "Congrats for playing, please come again" message.

The really frustrating part of playing a game this old, and with a dungeon that is only in the Japanese Gameboy version (not the Japanese Wii, or the American Gameboy releases) is that I think I've found an Easter Egg and there's no one to brag to.

One Japanese walkthrough gives suggestions on how to beat Omega, the final giant mecha boss. These include putting Haste on Sid and shooting Omega with a "Slow" bullet, in order to get four attacks in to one of Omega's, which will be good for 1-2 turns until Omega dispels the effects on both of you. During this time, shoot it with Fire Bullets to put elemental damage on it (about 125 hp per shot) and then switch to Blood Bullets to drain some hp from Omega to heal yourself when you need to. The problem with this approach is that often Omega will dispel the Haste on you the second you cast it, costing you a turn, it will hit you with attacks that deal 300-400 damage each, and every few turns it will heal itself for 500 hp. Ultimately, this is a losing battle. The A.R.T.S. specials generally only deliver 150-200 damage, and then your SP bar goes to 0. This is when you're really dependent on the potions you brought with you. The most important is Elixir, which restores full HP, SP and Stomach levels, but these are hard to find, at maybe 2 per trip through the dungeon.

The easter egg comes from the research notes that Dr. Glen left behind. You find 3 pages of notes every time you reach the research lab on floor 70. There are 10 sets of notes, so you have to get to floor 70, starting over from floor 1 each time, 10 times. The notes themselves are ignorable, just talking about how Glen created the A.R.T.S, which led to developing the monster robot Omega, which he had to seal away because it was so dangerous (he disappeared about the time Omega got sealed). The important part is that each batch is dated something like "S Month I Day". On a hunch, after collecting the final set of notes, I wrote down all of the letters to get the message "STUNELECTR ICFOROMEGA", in English. I guess that none of the Japanese gamers could read this, because doing a google search on this phrase turns up absolutely nothing, and the hint doesn't factor into the walkthroughs on how to beat the final boss.

So, there I was, facing Omega, and the Japanese walkthrough hints weren't helping me. I was being whittled down and going through healing potions too fast. I'd tried shooting it with Thunder Bullets, but that was only good for maybe 200 hits, which on a 6,500-hit boss wasn't good enough. Getting desperate, and more by accident than anything else, I was rushing through the list of the four A.R.T.S. when I noticed that one was titled "Lightning" in katakana. I tried that, and 'poof', 999 hits. Gulp an Elixir to bring SP back up to max, another Lightning A.R.T.S., and bang, anther 999 hits. I'd brought 7 Elixirs with me, but I'd used 3 just to stay alive, so I only had four left at this point, and I'd also wasted one attack with an A.R.T.S. that wasn't Lightning. The rest of the damage was applied with Blood Bullets, and I still fully expected to die first, when suddenly, Omega went down.

Just to test the theory, I ran through the dungeon 3 more times to upgrade the gun and coat to their highest levels (I needed 30 Diamonds for this), and could only find 3 more Elixirs. I then equipped a handful of High Ethers (recovers 2 SP bars) and Maxi Potions (recovers 500 HP). Not wanting to go through all 98 floors yet again, when I got to the bottom I continued on to confront Omega again. Haste myself, Slow Bullet on Omega, Lightning, Elixir, Lightning, Elixir, Haste, Slow Bullet, Lightning, Elixir, Lightning, a few High Ethers and Lightnings (500 hits each), Slow Bullet, Maxi Potion, Storm Bullet, Omega goes down.

Which brings me to now, as I type this up, and no one to brag to about finding a hint to beating the boss that none of the other Japanese players figured out. If I'd had 4 Elixirs I'd probably have been able to take Omega down within 2 minutes. 5 Elixirs and I'd be guaranteed to win without needing to use the Slow Bullets and Haste. (Actually, I think Omega only has 5,000 hp, but its ability to heal itself of 500 hp every 2-3 turns makes it look like it has more.)

And, with that out of the way, I can put the game away and never feel compelled to play it again. Still, it was nice to see Chocobo for a while. Maybe we'll meet again if I can find something else used. (Which may be difficult, because both SoftMap and Book Off are reducing the shelf space dedicated to used DS games to make more room for the 3DS...)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon

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

Back about 10 years ago, I received a Chocobo Dungeon game for the Playstation 2 as a present. I liked the graphics and playing with Chocobo as the main character, so there's that nostalgia thing at work. Recently, I found a used copy of Chokobo no Fushigina Danjon Toki Wasure no Meikyu (Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon: the Labyrinth of Forgotten Time) used at Book Off. The problem was that it was still priced at 2,500 yen ($22 USD), which is way above my 1,000 yen limit on used games. But, it was close to Christmas and I figured I'd get it as a present for myself this time.

I've mentioned before that I don't really like Rogue-like games. I've played Shiren 1, Toraneko 1 and the extra dungeon that opens up at the end of the PS2 Chocobo game. What I dislike so much is that luck is such a big factor in being able to survive battles. One small random choice made by the game engine, and you die within seconds, and lose everything in your inventory.

Labyrinth of Forgotten Time (2008, for the Gameboy DS) is nothing but Rogue-like dungeons. The premise is that treasure hunter Sid and his partner Chocobo are exploring a dungeon tower when they're suddenly teleported to an island where all the inhabitants (shopkeepers, villagers, the Mayor) are caught in a time loop. When you talk to them, they lose their memories and you have to help them out by entering the dungeon that represents their trapped thoughts. There's well over 20 separate dungeons, some up to 50 floors deep. Those are just for Chocobo. As for Sid, he has his own science-based dungeon that he explores by himself (the difference being that he uses guns instead of claws, and he always starts at level 1 and floor 1 when you play him. Although, he does keep his inventory between trips).

(Chocobo talking to one of the merchants.)

Dungeons come in two categories - normal, and special. Normal dungeons are part of the storyline, and you can bring money, items and equipment in and out of them. The first dungeon is only 5 floors deep, while the final boss dungeon is 50 floors (but you can teleport to every 10th floor once you defeat each of the mini-bosses). Defeating the main dungeon bosses returns the memories to each victim, and opens up the next part of the story. Special dungeons are largely optional, and have restrictions like level caps, not being able to bring weapons or items in or out, and maybe things like "only use potions" or "you only have 1 hit point". For the most part, special dungeons just reward you with a letter to your mail box. Reading the letter gives you a secret "romantic message" that you type into the screen for Mog, the Romantic Hero - X. If he accepts the message, he gives you a pop-up duel card, or sometimes it's an invitation to another secret special dungeon. The pop-up duel game is exactly like the one in Chocobo's Magic Picture Book. This time, it's only there for you to play against your friends in a wireless match, so there's not much point to playing any of the special dungeons, unless you like Rogue-likes, and you want to be a completist.

(Chocobo's stats screen, when you're in one of the dungeons, for the Hero X job type.)

There are 10 or 12 job types for Chocobo, from Normal and Thief, to Black Mage and Dancer. Some of the jobs are unlocked by finishing a normal dungeon, others are either from a special dungeon or as a reward for a romantic message. All of the jobs require job points for leveling up, and they cap out at level 8. Job points are dropped by monsters at random, so leveling up any given job is very time consuming. But, there are advantages, such as having the Thief's ability to view the entire map of each floor, the Black Mage's range spells, and the White Mage's healing spells. So far, I'm missing two jobs that are buried in one special dungeon, and the Dancer, which seems to be permanently locked on me. I've finished the storyline boss, but only a handful of the special dungeons. As I've said, I don't really like Rogue-likes, so if a dungeon takes more than 3 tries to beat, I'll give up on it.

Looking over the two online walkthroughs for the game, it seems that the English and Japanese versions are so different from each other as to be almost separate games. The English version has more floors to the dungeons, but the battles seem to be easier. Items and equipment aren't made available at the same time, and Chocobo has more play-time activities than in the Japanese version. A case in point is the flower garden. In front of one house in the village is a garden that you can plant mystery seeds in. These seeds give you job points for leveling up a given job type. In the Japanese version, you buy one type of seed, plant it, visit a dungeon, and then come back to pull out the fully grown flowers. For the American version, there are two types of seeds for sale, and you have to use a watering can to water the seeds twice (once before entering a dungeon, and again before going to a second dungeon. The seeds bloom only after the second visit.)

(Chocobo as a Knight.)

Naturally, the two versions use separate languages. Romantic Hero X only accepts English phrases in the English version, meaning that I had to find a Japanese walkthrough to get the Japanese phrases. But, that's to be expected. On the other hand, the list of romantic phrases looks to be longer in one of the Japanese walkthroughs. (Apparently, some of the Japanese romantic phrases were published on the Square Enix website, and only worked for a short time.)

 (In the dungeon, facing a giant. Unfortunately, the camera had trouble differentiating between the similar shades of blue for the giant and the background.)

Overall, the game looks and sounds great. The artwork is terrific, as is the music. The gameplay has lots of features, from the tons of dungeons to being able to play on the swing sets in the town playground. One "mini-game" is Chocobo fishing, where you can try catching items that can be used in the dungeons. There's almost infinite replay value, given the sheer number of dungeons, and the restrictions placed on the special dungeons makes them very challenging. I put in an easy 60 hours on this game, just to get through the story, and the "Chocobo Memories" dungeon. Very few other games I've reviewed in the past year have been that good at keeping me occupied. On the other hand, I hate the luck factor, and I keep feeling that playing Rogue-likes is a major waste of time after a while. So, I'm putting Chocobo away so I can get back to working on other stuff. At least, until I get to missing him again...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Environment Science

Found on the side of a dump truck.

"Environment Science" = find open land, cut down the trees, cover it with trash and mountains of discarded pachinko machines. At least it's not rocket science.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Aqua Delively

Water delivery services are very popular in Kagoshima. But, this was the first time I saw a mini-cart for this. I assume the use of the phone handset in the name is to take the place of the "r" in "delivery". But, it's equally plausible that the company got their name wrong... That would be funny.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

UFO Catchers

Swung by the game center in Amupla again. Yokai Watch was big that week.

As was Frozen.

I've been out of touch with anime for too long. I don't know what most of these figures are from. Nice detail work, though.

The stuff nightmares are made of.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Motorized Maneki Neko Fail

A few nights ago, I was walking home from the conversation school when I noticed the big inflatable maneki neko sitting up on its perch over a bunch of shops that had closed for the night. (The maneki neko, if you've forgotten, is usually present in the form of a small statue near the doorway of most stores, with its paw raised to beckon customers inside to spend money. In English, it's called the "Beckoning Cat".) Having a big neko with a motorized arm was enough to catch my attention, and I wanted to see what pedestrians coming in from the other direction would think seeing it from the back. Well, after taking one look, I vowed to return with a tripod to make a video. I'm pretty sure this is what Americans would call a "product design fail".

If you want, you can go to the youtube page, and use the video as a screen saver for when you're away from your computer at work. In fact, I strongly suggest that you do so.

Direct youtube link

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Chintai Apartments

Chintai is an apartment finder service. They promise to get inside your head to find what's right for you.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Yuki no Touge review

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

Yuki no Touge / Tsurugi no Mai, by Hitoshi Iwaaki, (2001) Grade: B+
Hitoshi is the author of Parasyte, Heureka and Historie. Yuki no Touge (Snow Cliff) came out after Parasyte, but before Heureka. The book is actually two stories - Snow Cliff and Sword Dance (Tsurugi no Mai). The descriptions of the first story given at Manga Updates read like something from Viz Media, and don't really give an accurate recount of the plot. Following the Battle of Sekigahara, near the end of the Warring States period, Yoshinobu Satake has called a meeting of Japan's greatest samurai to help him plan out his new castle. The warriors that had fought on the east naturally recommend a location in the eastern half of the country, while the western soldiers, including Satake himself, want a western site. The eastern faction includes Minonokami Kagiwara and Isenokami Kawai, both seasoned fighters (note that what's given here as their first names are actually position titles in the government. Neither man has a wiki entry in English, and I'm too lazy to translate the Japanese entries myself.) Kagiwara is older, more distinguished and more calculating. Kawai is brasher and more likely to blurt out his feelings. The western faction is led by Satake and backed by his closest aide, Naizen Shibue. Shibue has no military experience, but seems to be a talented city planner. He suggests building on a hill named Kubata, a short distance from the ocean up north near the Sea of Japan. This is Satake's favorite choice, because he likes looking at the sea. Kagiwara votes for something like Kanazawa, an existing castle near Osaka that has strong fortifications if the fighting resumes in the future. The story then revolves around the machinations of both Kagiwara and Shibue over where the new city show go.

(East versus west at the planning table. Shibue, left, and Kagiwara, right.)

Interspersed with the haggling are a couple stories regarding the brutality of the samurai. In one, Kagiwara tells of a time when feudal lord Kenshin Uesugi found himself encircled by superior enemy forces, and his castle was under siege. If I understand the story right, one of the other leaders is afraid of being captured and his children held hostage. So Uesugi has the boy and girl brought out, and he cuts them in two to eliminate them as potential liabilities. The specter of Uesugi still haunts Kagiwara to this day.

(The ghost of Uesugi, and a young Kagiwara.)

Eventually, the squabbling between the east and west factions gets so bad that Satake is forced to have the two propositions drawn up and sent by horse to Ieyasu Tokugawa himself, in Edo (Tokyo) for his decision on the matter. However, Shibue arranges to have the eastern proposal delayed just enough that the horse messenger gets caught in the snow in the mountain pass. Tokugawa gets both proposals but the dates are confusing enough to him that he ends up traveling to Satake's camp to look into matters personally. When Satake announces that Tokugawa has given his blessing to the Kubata site, Kagiwara explodes, saying the signature has to be a fake because a messenger couldn't get back through the snow in such a short time.

(Satake shows Tokugawa's approval of the Kubata site.)

Kagiwara is humiliated to learn that Tokugawa is in the guest house right now, a short distance from the main house. Shibue and Kagiwara are ordered to work together to plan the perfect castle town, one that favors rice farming over soldier-lined walls, but which can still be defended easily if needed. Work proceeds, with Shibue in charge. Kagiwara senses a change in the air and returns back to his own home just before Kawai and the remaining eastern faction attempt to assassinate Satake in a failed coup. Satake expected this and had the other three leaders killed at the same time, while allowing Kawai to get close enough to attack before being gutted by a bodyguard. The narrator goes on to say that Shibue is now know as the designer for modern-day Akita City in northern Japan.

(Haruna finds herself a teacher, with Bungoro and Nobutsuna.)

Sword Dance involves a young woman named Haruna. During one of the Sengoku (Warring States) battles, a group of samurai invade a peasant village and kidnap Haruna, supposedly leaving her parents and younger brother behind unharmed. After repeatedly raping and beating her, the men pass out, and Haruna is able to untie her bonds, steal a pouch of gold and then escape. When she succeeds in returning home, she finds the rest of her family slaughtered. Vowing revenge, she visits the dojo of the famed swordsman Nobutsuna Kamiizumi (creator of the Shinkage-ryu school of combat), and talks his nephew, Bungoro Hikita into taking her on as a student, using some of the stolen gold as payment. Nobutsuna has told Bungoro to start using a shinai (a light bamboo sword) for training, and he now gives his blessing to Bun to become a teacher as a way of furthering his own skills. At first, Haruna is really bad, but she eventually improves somewhat from the constant practice, with Bun defending himself with the shinai, and Haruna using a regular heavy wooden practice sword.

(Bungoro in action.)

One day, Haruna and Bungoro visit the neighboring samurai camp, where they encounter Yokichi, a farmer from Haruna's village. He yells at her for stealing the soldiers' gold, which is why they'd killed her family afterward. She tries to correct him, but he won't listen. Yokichi gets further inflamed at finding out that Bungoro is teaching her how to fight. They part ways for the moment, but a few days later enemy forces descend on the estate, and Nobutsuna has to lead the daimyo's forces into battle, with Bungoro going to the main front. Haruna and Yokichi are instructed to defend the main house, and are to retreat at the first sign of the enemy if they get past him. The fighting starts, and many of the enemy make it to the house, including Haruna's kidnappers. She manages to kill the first three, but the leader is too skilled and battle hardened for her. He stabs her through the chest, and as she starts to die, she takes the rest of the gold from the pouch and drops it to the floor. This distracts the other guy enough to let her grab his dagger and slit his throat. Yokichi finds her just before she passes away, and she makes him promise to give the remaining money to her teacher as thanks. Yokichi berates Bungoro for being the kind of person that death follows, and he loses his interest in sword work as a form of physical training

(Yokichi finds Haruna.)

A few years later, Nobutsuna has shaved his head and become a monk at a temple in Yamatonokuni. He's visited by Munetoshi Yagyu (known for mastering Shinkage-ryu), who wants to challenge him to a duel.  Nobutsuna agrees, but says that Bungoro will fight in his place. Further, while Yagyu can use a wooden practice sword, Bungoro will just have the shinai. Yagyu's followers are offended at this huge slight, but Yagyu himself has no choice but to agree to these terms. Bungoro has been in a deep funk during all this time, and has no interest in the duel. He has to be prodded to even notice what's going on around him. His uncle tells him "just go out and have fun". Remembering Haruma, Bungoro wonders how any of this can be fun. It is then recorded that Bungoro scored solid hits to Yagyu's head three times in a row with his shinai.

(Back cover.)

Comments: The character designs are typical Iwaaki, but they're still crude and undeveloped compared to Historie. The backgrounds are highly detailed, and the fight scenes do look very dynamic. Iwaaki has this tendency to show body parts flying through the air as if they've been cut off with a very fast laser. While this can be dramatic, he does it too much and it's not very realistic. Both stories unfold slowly, and are extremely talky. If you're looking for action, it only occurs once or twice throughout. Mainly, this book shows more of the psychological play between the various characters as they interact between battles. The battles themselves are rather short. But they are gruesome and graphic. If you don't like blood or heavy physical violence, especially against women, then you won't like Sword Dance. On the other hand, if you're a Japanese history buff, then Snow Cliff is recommended for its depiction of the founding of Akita, and Sword Dance for its look into the lives of the historic figures Nobutsuna Kamiizumi and Bugoro Hikita.

Friday, January 16, 2015


"Where DOES he get those wonderful toys!?"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Kagoshima Global Day

There's a local NPO called Kagoshima Global With. I met one of their members last year at an event aimed at international people wanting to learn more about the city. The guy wanted to friend me on Facebook, and I said "sure, why not". About 3-4 months ago I started getting announcements from them about Kagoshima Global Day, which was going to be a series of musical performances by various groups on Jan. 12th. As the date got closer, my work schedule firmed up and I realized I'd have a couple of hours free that afternoon. The event was to run from 2 to 5 PM on Coming of Age Day. This day is a national holiday to celebrate teenagers being recognized as adults on their 20th birthdays. More about this later. The Global Day event took place in a small auditorium on the 8th floor of the Daiei department store, across the street from the main train station.

The event started late and the first group up, The Guitar Jam, ran 10 minutes long. If you look at the below photo, the guy at the right is a music teacher, and the rest of the band are his students. They were good, for amateurs, but there were a lot of mistakes in the music.

The second group, Ashfall, consisted of 4 English teachers located in Kanoya City, on the other side of Kyushu from the volcano. Guess why they picked this name? They billed themselves as an indie-style band, but the only one that seemed to have any real talent was the drummer, the only member that didn't sing. The guitarist to the right played a pretty good guitar riff, though.

(The lead singer has the grunge look down pat.)

When Ashfall finished, the event was running 20-30 minutes late, and I had to decide if I was going to run to Terukuni Jinja for photos there prior to going to work at 5 PM (my first class of the evening was to start at 5:30). Ashfall was followed by an Indonesian group called BHINNEKA (video of one song below). They were the only ones I wanted to record, but the camera didn't like focusing when I changed zoom, and the room acoustics weren't good. I deleted the first video because the camera picked up people talking that I hadn't noticed when I was in the room. In the second video, there's unwanted feedback part-way through the song.

Direct Youtube link

The other bands scheduled included ichigo-ichie, a 70's style rock group that apparently has Filipino members; duboi, a Kagoshima band that formed 3 years ago; The Kyushu Nihongo School (made up of Chinese and Vietnamese members that study Japanese together at the International Center); U.NOW, another group of English teachers that formed in 2011; and Zousan Band.

I recognized about 5 people in the audience from other events (there were maybe 100 people when I left), and we talked for a while before the music started. I kind of would have liked to see the Nihongo School group, because I know Kennard, one of the members, from the International Center. I thought I recognized the name "Zousan Band", but it wasn't until I got home that night and did a Google search that I realized that the first hit to come up was for the video on youtube that I'd taken back in November at the event for raising awareness for the need for handicapped access to local businesses. Now, I wish that I could have stuck around until they got on stage, but that would have been after 5 PM, when I'd have needed to leave to go to work, anyway.

Now, at 3:30 PM, I figured that I'd be better off going to Terukuni Jinja. As mentioned above, the 12th was Coming of Age Day. This is when young women turning 20 dress up in expensive kimonos and get $500 hair styles, then walk around town or make shrine visits. I'd seen a few women in kimono in Tenmonkan on Saturday and Sunday, and I was hoping there'd be enough people visiting Terukuni to make for some colorful photos. The weather was perfect, and the sky was a clear blue, so that should have been a good warning to me, but, no. I walked the mile to the shrine, and all along the way, no kimonos. I get to the shrine, no kimonos anywhere; just a few last stragglers still making their Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year) worshipers. I head into Tenmonkan and walk around there for a while, and still nothing. Finally, it was after 4 and I needed to get home to prepare to go to the school for work. Sigh. Well, maybe next year...

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gokoku Jinja Hatsumode

As I mentioned in the post on the first shrine visit of the year at Terukuni Jinja, the Hatsumode period (the time during which people will make that first shrine visit) can be up to 2 weeks into January.

There's a second shrine, called Gokoku Jinja, about 2 miles from Terukuni, in the direction of the main freeway entrance in this area. I've been there a couple times, and it dates at least back to the time when local hero Saigo was a kid (early 1800's). I was wondering if there were any big differences between how the two shrines celebrate the New Year, so I walked over on Jan. 11. One of the first is that there aren't any food or toy stalls along the road leading to the main grounds. The second is that they have free amazake (sweet, unfiltered sake that is served hot). Unfortunately, they ran out just about the time I arrived.

A guardian Foo Dog, with fortunes tied on the strings in the background. I was surprised to see that some of the fortunes are on gold paper, which I haven't seen before.

Front of the main shrine. The boxes on the tables are fortunes, for about 100 yen each, sold on the honor system.

Looking into the main building. The white buckets immediately in front of the camera are where you throw money in before praying for good luck for the year. Traditionally, you're supposed to toss in a coin with a hole in the center, such as 5 yen or 50 yen (5 cents or 50 cents), but some people will throw 1000 yen or 5000 yen bills instead.

A peek at a ceremony being conducted inside for the more faithful.

More lucky charms on sale. White arrows are always popular at this time of year.

The back of the sheep signs at the entrance torii. It was an overcast day, making for rather dreary pictures.

Close ups of the writing. It reads "Where ever you go, there you are. You might as well get used to it, because this part is never going to change."