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January 25, 2008

Tokyo, Japan
Suntory Time

My second favorite thing about Taipei is the crosswalk signs. They tell you how many seconds you have left to cross, and by way of illustration, they show an animation of a little green man walking.

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As the timer counts down, the animation plays faster until the last few seconds when he’s in a dead sprint to get to safety before the cars start buzzing by. It expresses the following statement with concise iconography:

“Dear God, run for your life! You are about to get flattened!”

My favorite thing about Taipei is Taipei 101. It is the tallest skyscraper in the world…well, sort of.

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It’s the tallest by three standards of measurement. None of those, however, is the most straightforward: ground to peak. That title still belongs to the third ranked Sears Tower in Chicago. Taipei 101 doesn’t top it and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which claim the number two spot, don’t even come close.

The measurement that matters most to me and pretty much anyone else is how high up you can get as a plain old tourist. In that contest, the Sears Tower still wins handily with an observation deck at 412 meters. Taipei 101 puts you at 392 meters, and the weasely, trumped-up Petronas dumps you off on the skybridge at the halfway point around 170 meters.

The Petronas Towers really piss me off.

In any case, Taipei 101 is still impressive, claiming the record for tallest structure and highest occupied floor. It’s a particularly daring achievement given its location on the Pacific Rim, which is prone to both earthquakes and giant monster attacks.

Taipei 101 has the tallest, fastest elevator in the world, reaching a top speed of 60 kph on the way up. And it has a thing called the  Super Big Wind Damper.

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The Super Big Wind Damper is a giant steel ball that weighs 660 tons. It hangs from galvanized steel wires in the center of the building right up near the top.

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It sways up to 1.5 meters in extreme wind conditions and is said to reduce the building’s motion by 40%. It is also yellow.

Despite its monstrous size, the Super Big Wind Damper has proven vulnerable to the regional predilection for anthropomorphized cutesiness. The building’s marketing department used it as inspiration for their mascot: Damper Baby.

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Damper Baby loves you.

I was stunned to find an uninterrupted stairwell leading to the ground floor. I guess they have to have that for safety reasons.

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Must…resist…urge…to drop…coin…

The observation deck has what I would imagine is a very impressive view. Unfortunately, on the day I went up you couldn’t see a damn thing.

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This made the outdoor observation deck a particularly creepy place to be.

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Taipei 101 was completed just over three years ago, and it’ll hold on to the tallest building title for about another half hour, when the Burj Dubai will completely obliterate all other competitors.

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Like most things in Dubai, the Burj seems to transcend reality with its absurd grandiosity and pointlessness. It is designed by Americans, overseen by South Koreans, constructed by Pakistanis, and paid for by guys who are really into Baywatch.

While the best skyscrapers are, in my opinion, a testament to human ingenuity and vision, the Burj will be a testament to just how incredibly much money they will blow to get our attention.

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Nevertheless, someday, inshallah, I will be up there.

Taiwanese seem to be really into food. I estimate that at any given moment, at least half the country is eating. I don’t think I’ve gone 20 feet without hitting a restaurant or food stall of some kind. And yet they are all skinny.

Had I enough courage and a companion, I would definitely have eaten here.

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This is just a thing I saw.

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I bought some grape tomatoes from a street vendor. I'm a big fan of grape tomatoes as they are a mindless snack that still qualifies as actual food. When I popped one into my mouth, the vendor lady shuddered and took them away from me. She put the plastic bag on the ground and let the water from a hose wash them clean. I alerted her that tomatoes were spilling out onto the street. She rushed back over and started pulling the tomatoes out of the gutter and dropping them back into the bag.

We clearly had different ideas about what qualifies as clean.

This is a terrible name for an event.

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I am looking forward to the women’s deafnastics and the deafathlon. There are certain to be some fine deafletics on deafsplay.

I watched a woman in a mall demoing this fascinating device.

For some reason it is targeted specifically at women. Now what gender specific value could it possilby have? I am confounded. It is a mystery.

The poopy weather held out for my whole visit in Taiwan. I wanted to get a dancing clip on a hilltop overlooking the city so as to feature Taipei 101 in the frame. I held out for clear skies until the last possible minute. Early this morning, shortly before my flight out, I took a taxi to a recommended viewing spot hoping for a miracle. When I got there, the entire city was still veiled in fog. Then I looked up from my cab and right in front of me was something a hundred times better than some dumb skyline. I told the driver to pull over and ran out to get one of the weirdest clips I’ve ever taken. I am quite fond of it and pretty sure it’ll make the cut.

I’m in Tokyo now. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation has put me up in a great hotel. They requested a room that overlooks Shibuya Crossing, where I shot the Japan clip for the 2006 dancing video.

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My host, Daisuke, greeted me at the airport with, “Hello, Matt. I am Daisuke. Do you need to go to the toilet?”

I puzzled over the question until he explained, “The time is 15:09. The bus leaves at 15:10. It takes 130 minutes to reach Tokyo. You have 1 minute.”

Daisuke took me out for a sushi dinner. I was given a big assortment and finished absolutely every item on the plate except the shrimp heads. I was brave and unsqueamish, despite my inclinations. At the end, Daisuke ordered one last plate and insisted I try it, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. I took a stand, citing my pretty good record so far and demanding foreknowledge of what I'd be putting in my mouth.

Daisuke relented. “It is,” he explained, “the source of life for the man.”

I get asked all the time what the strangest food I’ve ever eaten is and I really don’t have a very good answer. So for the sake of a decent response, I prepared myself emotionally and took a small bite.

It tasted pretty much how you’d expect fish semen to taste.

We went out for coffee with two of Daisuke’s coworkers; Tomoko, and Mr. Tanaka.

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Mr. Tanaka is doing a story on YouTube’s new program of sharing ad revenue with video creators. Tomoko translated and we had a long, interesting conversation about the business model.

YouTube is very popular in Japan, but it is used mostly to view television shows, which are copyrighted and posted illegally. This was pretty much YouTube’s main function in the states as well before the big crackdown. What Japan doesn’t have is the army of amateur content creators doing unseemly things to their pets and lighting their farts on fire, so YouTube’s other big asset isn’t quite as compelling over here.

After the talk, I walked around some more with Daisuke. I’ve always had anxiety about Japan because the culture is so overwhelming and intimidating and kind of insular. Having Daisuke nearby made the place seem a lot less impenetrable and opened me up to its charms.

I’m a lifelong nerd and I worked in videogames for many years, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of Japanese media culture. If you’ll pardon me for saying so, much of it strikes me as completely insane. Tonight was the first time I’ve ever really sat down with locals and had a conversation. It’s been a pleasant surprise to discover there are plenty of perfectly normal, relatable humans on the other side of that wall of weirdness.

Daisuke took me into the Shibuya 109 building, which houses a department store that is galactic ground zero for trendy women’s clothing. It was brimming over with super-happy-funtime girls in pig tails, suspenders, hot pants, and argyle stockings. Riding up the escalator, Daisuke turned to me and said, “We are a strange people.”

Just hearing that makes them a whole lot less so.