October 20, 2008

Bali, Indonesia
Dumpling Stuffed With Ovary and Digestive Glands of Crab

They're still running the Tommy Lee Jones ad campaign in Tokyo.

His face reminds me of the surface of Mars.

Cool building in Shinjuku.

The Japanese are always thinking of new ways to streamline bathroom visits.

Visited the site of the Tokyo dancing clip from the last video.

Aside from that we just did a lot of shopping and eating. Got to go to Mandarake and Tokyu Hands. Ate about a dozen of those triangular-shaped seaweed and rice things.

On to Shanghai. Would you like some gigantic fruit cake?

Every year Shanghai's skyline looks more like a backdrop from the original Star Trek TV show.

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It's even crazier at night.

Their most recent addition is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which opened to the public about 6 weeks ago. At 470 meters, its observation deck is the highest of any building in the world (excluding towers like the CN in Toronto, and the Burj in Dubai which isn't quite finished yet).

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It also has the distinction of being the world's largest bottle opener.

This model shows the original concept, which included a giant alien bird thing at the top. They had to cut it for safety reasons.

The Financial Center towers over the adjacent Jin Mao, which was once the third tallest building in the world. It now looks diminished and bitter -- the Jeb Bush of skyscrapers.

The top part of the bottle opener has glass floors so you can look down at the bottom part of the bottle opener. Likewise, from the bottom part, you can look up at the top.

This is all much more horrifying than it sounds. To illustrate, behold the abject terror of this bratty little kid.

World's ballsiest window washers.

The area surrounding the Financial Center is littered with dozens of also-ran skyscrapers. They're all very nice, and all practically invisible next to the bottle opener and the totally ridiculous, sphere-adorned Oriental Pearl tower.

Pudong is the little peninsula with all the skyscrapers on it. We took a ferry across for about $0.17. It was a mad rush of scooters amongst the constant stream of barges along the Huang Pu river.

To get back we took the "tourist tunnel," which is a tram that runs underneath the river. It costs 50 times more, but it includes a light show and inflatable creatures that bang against the carriage, so that's some added value.

Visited the Yu Yuan gardens. Meh.

Smelled one of the worst odors I've ever come across in my life.

Melissa very nearly flash-vomited.

A stroll along the Bund.

The People's Heroes Memorial celebrates the two founding principles of modern Shanghai: tallness and concreteness.

Here's a tip: when naming your restaurant, avoid the word "waterborne".

Stayed at the Grand Hyatt. After an exhausting first day, we didn't even leave the hotel for the second day and instead made the most of its fantastic gym/pool/spa facility.

This is a new kind of travel for me. I could get used to doing it on occasion.

Took the Mag Lev train to the airport -- as in "magnetic levitation." It's the first commercial mag lev train in the world. It can reach a top speed of about 430kph, but ours topped off at 301kph.

The train only runs 30 kilometers, so it's a brisk 7 minute ride. You get up to speed, then you start slowing down. I can only assume it's more of a "tech demo" than anything else. A few months ago they announced a new line connecting Shanghai to Hangzhou about 150 km's away, so maybe that'll feel a bit more purposeful.

That's Nick, who we're traveling with.

Stopover in Singapore, then a flight to Bali. Got cozy with some strange man on a bench.

The digs on this leg were the best yet. A 6 bedroom villa.

Visited a temple.

 

Had lunch at a barbequed ribs place with a strong political bias.

Obama spent several years living in Indonesia during his youth.

Sat on the beach for a while, then Melissa and I got massages.

Roadside ribs plus sun plus heavy-duty massage did what steamed Chinese crab rectums failed to: Melissa puked her guts out.

The next day we went up into the highlands to see the terraced rice paddies.

Did some foraging.

And there's my staccato update. No rants, no ruminations. Just the facts...minus a few key details that I can't get into right now.

October 11, 2008

Tokyo, Japan
Kenny G on a Plane

Kenny G is a really nice guy. I mean like ridiculously nice. He makes wilted flowers bloom with his aura.

Melissa and I sat behind him yesterday on our flight from LA to Tokyo. Nick, our traveling companion, chatted him up without having any idea who he was. Nick somehow managed to slip in that I am "famous."

"You're famous?" asked Kenny G.
"Wait a minute. Aren't you Kenny G?" I asked Kenny G.
"Yeah. Who are you?"
I told him who I am.
"You're kidding. You're that guy!?"

I've had the good fortune to fly first class once or twice. I've never been able to do it with someone. Kenny G helped Melissa and me get seats next to each other.

He also helped the flight attendant pass out drinks, and later bathed the cabin in smooth adult contemporary jazz.

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Hancock and Baby Mama were both way better than I thought they'd be.

They gave us free earplugs in our little kit things, so guess what happened there.

I went to Minneapolis last month for a speaking engagement. It was a gathering of animal feed salespeople from around the world. I talked for a few minutes then invited everyone up to dance on stage. That seems to go over well. Speaking has become an unanticipated side occupation that I very much enjoy. I'm not very good at it, but I'm learning a lot.

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Flew out to New York for a Google event. They gave me a Garmin GPS device, which I cherish and hold close to my bosom. Also met with my publisher. Still shooting for May with the book.

From New York I flew straight to LA. Had dinner with my friend Courtney, who's working on that Christian Slater show that premieres in a couple days. After that I picked Melissa up at the airport. It was getting close to midnight, but she's seen very little of LA, so I got us a convertible and took her on a wee-hours driving tour.

We drove from LAX to Santa Monica, up the PCH to Malibu, then inland through the valley and down to Mulholland. We came out on Sunset, drove through Bel Air and Beverly Hills, then along Hollywood Boulevard, down to Melrose, West Hollywood, Rodeo Drive to Wilshire, through Westwood, onto the 405 and back to the hotel.

The drive would've taken 8 hours during the day. It took us about 2.

Morning flight to Tokyo and here we are. They gave us robes in our hotel room. Guess what happened there.

I'm looking forward to a break from this damn election. I'll be home for the last few days of it, then I can vote and be done with it.

Some fun facts about Kenny G, courtesy of Wikipedia:

- Kenny G has sold over 48 million albums.
- Kenny G is a founding investor in Starbucks.
- Kenny G holds the Guinness record for longest note ever recorded on a saxophone. He played an E-flat for 45 minutes and 12 seconds.

Someone created an annotated version of the 2008 video highlighting details that often go unnoticed. Some of them I've never even noticed. It's pretty funny.

January 29, 2008

Seoul, South Korea
Big In Japan

Every hotel room should have a “Do Not Disturb” button next to the bed. Every hotel room power socket should be universal, allowing plugs from any region. Not every toilet seat should be heated, though I’m open-minded about the retracting butt sprinkler.

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I've been stewing for a long time about the great vacuum in the hotel industry. There is no hotel chain I know of that comes close to suiting my needs -- and I don't think my needs are particularly particular.

They offer plenty of things I don't need, like shoe-shiners and shower caps, and little that I would value, like a comfortable seating arrangement for laptop use.

But the biggest disconnects are definitely the colossal waste of space and excessive prices. I do not need to luxuriate in my entry hall or writhe around in the gutters on either side of my bed. I'd be more than happy to trade half my square footage for some elegant design and thoughtful amenities. And how in the world did these rooms get to cost hundreds a night? Where is the value?

Someone needs to do for hotels what IKEA did for furniture. I want a chain that provides practical, compact rooms for half what all the other hotels are charging. I believe it can be done. Ditch the pool and beef up the gym. Get rid of reception and put in a touch screen, credit card swipe, and a key dispenser. Oh, and how about some actual food in the mini-bar? Like real, nourishing, life-sustaining food. I'd pay the jacked-up prices if it wasn't just Chee-tos and Toblerone. How about an apple?

Now it is time for me to digress.

I am in a traditional Korean restaurant called “Bennigan’s.” I have ordered something called “chicken quesadilla.” It’s delicious.

Oh, I’m so disappointed in you, Matt. I thought you enjoyed discovering new cultures. I thought you were a citizen of the world. Turns out you’re just another fat American.

Yes, I’ve heard it. But when I want to write, nothing beats a booth at an American chain restaurant. I once wrote an entire videogame script in a Denny’s. Also, sometimes you just need a basket full of fried cheese.

I got invited on a Japanese talk show while I was in town. They decided to play a practical joke on me and cut the legs off all the chairs in my dressing room.

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They also asked me to bring my luggage and walk onto the show carrying it.

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They wanted it to appear as if I’d just parachuted into Tokyo or something. The people you see next to me aren’t the real hosts. They’re stand-ins used for the rehearsal. To make sure it goes smoothly, they walk through the whole thing before the real hosts even show up. The real hosts, I’m told, are famous comedians.

The segment before mine was about the new Japanese fashion trend of dipping women in a layer of pink latex.

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…kidding! It was about the Japanese beauty ideal and how women have been getting dramatically taller in recent years as a result of dietary changes. To illustrate, they had this year’s Miss Japan on as a guest.

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If you ask me, she could stand to lose a few.

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They hauled out prints of their favorite clips from the video to discuss. Japanese TV shows still use old fashioned physical props, which is kind of charming. They build the gigantic flatscreens that make Wolf Blitzer look like Jiminy Cricket, and yet for their own shows they prefer mounted foam boards and adhesive plastic rain clouds.

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We danced.

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The next morning, Daisuke, the producer of the segment, came by the hotel to be my guide for the day. Daisuke lives way up north outside Tokyo. It takes him two hours to get to work every day – each way – but he prefers to live in the country so he can keep a vegetable garden and show his son what the color green looks like. Twice on this visit I have kept him out so late that he had to sleep in his office. I feel very bad about that.

Daisuke was in Yemen on September 11th, 2001. He was outside a restaurant when the TVs began showing a smoking World Trade Center. He asked some of the locals what was going on -- who was responsible. They told him it was the Japanese Red Army.

The Japanese Red Army is, to me, an obscure bit of trivia buried somewhere in the back of my brain. Less the case for Daisuke, who was momentarily distressed for understandable reasons that, ironically, had nothing to do with being in the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden.

This is a soccer field on top of an office building. Neat!

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We walked by this restaurant that serves whale meat.

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Of course it launched a spirited discussion on the practice. I've had similar conversations with Norwegians, so I was prepared to have my many meat hypocricies pointed out to me. Why, for example, is it only whales that we feel the need to protect?

"Well, it's actually not just whales. I'd feel a similar need to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of any endangered species."

Yes, but what if they're no longer endangered? Research shows that some whale species are at healthy numbers.

"Right. And who determines what healthy is? Not to mention, how certain can they be in their estimates of a population that migrates throughout the open ocean? Whales have had a tough century. Let's give them a break."

This went on, remaining a civil and friendly difference of opinion.

Finally, Daisuke said, "In Japan we have a long tradition of whaling."
"Uh huh. In America we have a long tradition of slavery..."

I win!

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Daisuke took me to Harajuku, the fashion district.

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It being a Sunday afternoon, we were able to check out the Harajuku girls on display near the edge of the park.

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They're there to hang out with friends and have their pictures taken by tourists and gawkers. They do not ask for or accept money for these pictures. Evidently they just enjoy the attention.

The outfits are spectacular. Goth has recently taken hold and been interpreted to suit Japanese tastes.

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I can understand someone deciding this is all very strange and unhealthy, but on reflection I think it's harmless fun. At least it's social. At least it's outdoors.

The kids are all right.

Yoyogi Park is incredibly vibrant on the weekends. Teenage rock bands line the sidewalk. Not really street performers, they just seem to play for anyone who'll listen.

I saw a group of kids rehearsing an elaborate swordfight routine with wooden sticks. A bit further on, some guy was flailing around topless with a pair of nunchucks. I stopped to watch and he hit himself in the ribs, so I apologized and kept on going.

Some guy passed by walking about a dozen Dachsund puppies on one mega-leash. Dog-lovers, forgive me if I've got the breed wrong.

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I think that's the mom in the middle, looking appropriately beleaguered. At the bottom of the frame are a pair that is bound together on a short leash with no human attached. The method seems to work pretty well. Their efforts to run off cancel each other out. They were frozen in a constant tug-of-war that had me in stitches.

Then there's these guys.

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I've seen them before on YouTube. Actually, here ya go...

It's not just a group -- it's more like a subculture. Daisuke didn't know the name, but they vaguely resemble something we might have called greasers...about 50 years ago. The thing is, though: they dance. It's this bombastic shimmy that looks exhausting under all that leather and hair gel.

I was taken by the idea of getting them to dance with me. They're a pretty intimidating lot, believe it or not -- they seem to barely tolerate spectators rather than actively drawing them in, and their closed circle formation made it clear that audience participation was discouraged.

I enlisted Daisuke to ask them, during a break, if I could dance with them on camera for a few seconds. Daisuke became uncomfortable, emphasizing how inappropriate it would be to proposition them.

"They are very...conservative. They do not speak with people outside their group. Like modern samurai."

Wow. Really? Samurai? I'm pretty sure Daisuke wasn't kidding. And I don't think they were kidding either. In fact, I think an important thing to understand about Japan is that no one is kidding, ever. The concept of irony doesn't seem to translate. Similarly, I tried at one point to explain to Daisuke what a cliché is. It was like trying to explain baseball to an octopus. I got as far as defining corniness, which isn't really the same thing.

I pressured and prodded Daisuke and he finally approached one of the guys. He got a terse look, along the lines of "How dare you?" and that was the end of it.

So that was a minor disappointment. But then we had the dancing event.

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Over 60 people turned up. It was a fun crowd. We had a lot of random spectators and some of them even joined in.

But it was freezing cold, so we only did three takes and then I posed for about 4000 pictures before it wound down.

Reijiro is another producer from the show. He joined Daisuke and I in our further wanderings.

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They took me to Akihabara to pick up a memory stick for my new videocamera.

Ooh. I guess I haven't mentioned that. I switched to the new Sony CX7.

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It's about half the size of my already-tiny SR1. It ditches the hard drive that caused so many problems in the past and uses memory sticks instead. Solid state data means no worries in weightless environments. Yay! Memory sticks also make transferring the data a lot easier, but the cards can each only hold an hour of HD footage, whereas the hard drive held four. The cards are expensive too, but overall I prefer this slimmer, more efficient model.

We had dinner at a shabu shabu restaurant. It's a bit like fondue. You get thin slices of beef and a boiling pot of water in the center of your table. You dip the beef in the water and chant "shabu shabu, shabu shabu" for about five seconds, then dip the meat in sauce and eat it. Fun and delicious.

Daisuke asked if I wanted to go to a Maidu coffee place. I could tell from their looks that it was illicit, but I couldn't discern exactly how. Daisuke said he'd never been before, but would be willing to try it if it was something I was interested in. Reijiro owned up to having been once, which Daisuke gave him a lot of crap about, suggesting he'd perhaps been a little more often than that.

Curiosity piqued.

I'm not sure if I'm spelling Maidu right, but that's more or less how it sounds when they say it. It's Japanese girls dressed up as french maids. The whole operation is like a strip club, except instead of taking their clothes off, the girls play board games with you.

You pay for a 90 minute package, which includes a round of non-alcoholic drinks, one board game, and a few minutes of conversation with each of the four girls. That's it.

There were about a dozen other men in the small coffee shop. Some young, some old, all Japanese.

I tried to take a picture of one of the maids, which got me into trouble. She pointed to a price list that puts a photo at 1000 Yen -- about $10. So instead of a picture, I will rely on an old friend to describe it.

The dresses were black and there was no grating baby talk, but that pretty much paints the scene.

Though prohibited from photographing the girls, I was allowed to point the camera in the other direction, so I took pictures of Reijiro instead.

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Here we are playing a game I'd never heard of. You take turns sticking plastic swords into a barrel until Jack Sparrow pops his head out and berates you. If your sword is the one to make him pop out, you lose. It's basically Russian Roulette. Reijiro lost three games, so Daisuke and I got chocolate bars as prizes and Reijiro had to wear the kitty cat ears.

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Next came the conversations. The first girl spoke a bit of English and asked where I'm from. Daisuke explained, "He is famous American dancer."

Silence. The girl took a step back, covered her mouth with her hand, and then...

"YOU TUUUUUUBE!"

Everyone stopped what they were doing. The place pretty much shut down for five minutes. The girls explained that in most coffee shops the workers would not be familiar with me, but they are young and spend a lot of time on the internet. They each had me sign their journals. Then one of them asked if I'd take a picture with her. I told her it would cost 1000 Yen. She didn't get it.

There was some deliberation about whether she would be allowed to take a picture with a non-paying customer. She had to clear it with her boss. Daisuke followed the back and forth with some interest. "This is very confusing situation," he said.

They agreed to dance with me for the next video. I still had some release forms with me, so they all signed, explaining that I was not to reveal their real names to anyone. "Top secret," they said. I guess they use fake names for work.

We danced.

Daisuke and Rejiero took me to Don Quixote, a chain of Japanese stores that sells...well, all sorts of stuff. I don't know how to describe it, but here's some girls' underpants and Daisuke reprimanding me for pulling out the camera again.

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On the way back to my hotel, we passed my arch nemesi: the Free Hugs people.

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It was cute for a very brief period. Now it's just creepy and annoying.

...of course, one could say the same thing about what I do.

I saw the glint in Daisuke's eye and stopped him from pulling the "famous American dancer" stunt again.

The next day was all about travel. I went to the wrong airport and missed my flight, then a layover in a place called Fukuoka. Seoul has great mass transit, but holy crap it's cold here. I walked to the hotel I'd picked out, but it was full. Exhausted, I couldn't bear to go back out there, so I checked into the pricey Best Western next door.

Dancing again tonight, then I've got a few days to screw around before I move on.

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.

March 19, 2006

Tokyo, Japan
Pod Life

Checking into my capsule hotel involved an elaborate sequence of rituals, each of which I managed to botch up terribly.

The shoes, I learned the hard way, come off immediately upon entering. There are hundreds of tiny lockers off to the side. You put them in an empty one and remove the key.

Hand the key in at the desk and fork over the $40. In return, they'll give you a manila envelope and a second key for a larger locker. The second key is attached to a wearable rubber wrist band. The shoe locker key, your passport, and any other valuables go in the envelope. They rip off a claim tag so you can get it back, then you go to your locker, take off all your clothes, put them inside, and remove the beige robes waiting for you at the bottom.

The larger locker is still only hand-width -- nowhere near big enough for luggage. That goes in a room behind the front desk. They give you another claim tag for it.

Once fleeced of all your belongings, you can make your way to your 6' by 3', sound-proofed capsule dwelling.

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I love it in here. Mostly because I get to pretend I'm on a spaceship.

It's not claustrophobic at all. It triggers something in my brain that makes me revert to fetal mode. They do a pretty good job of simulating it, except with a television and clock radio conveniently molded into the tissue lining.

There are numerous communal facilities to enjoy. The men-only policy gives it a feel that's somewhere between gentlemen's club, military barracks, and ant colony. All the tables in the restaurant are one-seat, facing several giant televisions against the wall. There's a vaguely non-chaste massage parlor filled with perky young women. The internet lounge is handy and free.

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That sign on the wall there is too blurry to read. It warns that you must, at all costs, avoid the urge...

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...to smork.

The open-air baths -- now that's a site to see: naked Japanese men running around everywhere, some crouching in booths to splash water on their armpits and genitals.

I need a shower badly, but I dare not engage in the Japanese equivalent. It's not modesty that gives me pause -- no, I'm unashamed of what I have to display -- it's the constant, looming fear of gross impropriety.

Reading my guidebook's list of do's and don'ts filled me with dread. God forbid I should leave chopsticks standing upright in a rice bowl. Evidently there's no atoning for that insult. And what if spring allergies should force me to blow my nose in public? An unspeakable act, I'm told. I don't even want to speculate on what offenses I could issue by plunging my naked gaijin ass into a public pool.

These etiquette fears were borne out at dinner an hour ago. I caved to my sushi urge, and at the end of the meal asked, as I often do at home, for a bowl of rice to finish off my appetite. This set the sushi chefs stirring for the rest of the night. They closed the place down still gabbing about what in the world I could have been thinking to make such an inappropriate request.

I'm going to savor my hunger while I'm here. It's something I must dispense with carefully, cause there's only so much I can eat in four days. My tragedy is knowing I'm not going to eat this well again for the rest of my trip -- at least until Italy, maybe.

My appreciation for Japanese food doesn't extend to the culture in general. In my line of work, familiarity with its quirks is unavoidable. I find it charming from a distance, but I'm not beguiled by Sailor Moon and Cowboy Bebop like so many of my erstwhile videogame-geek colleagues. My fever, if I have one, is not yellow.

The peculiar interests and habits of the Japanese are well-documented and I won't dwell on them here, but I think what distinguishes these folks above all else is the unbridled enthusiasm with which they approach everything. If they're into it, they're into it all the way. No kidding around. No looking back. There doesn't seem to be any separation between mere interest and fetish. And the fetishes are legion.

Even things like disenfranchisement and apathy are approached with absolute dedication. The homeless have read all the magazines on how to dress, smell, and behave like homeless, and they're committed to simulating it as accurately as possible.

I haven't explored the city much yet, but I'm already having to dull my sensors for all things videogame and comic book-related. My standard practice is to doggedly pursue any hint of either thing. If I did that here, I'd never make it a block.

I arrived here a few hours ago on a direct flight from Seattle, and find myself immediately, hopelessly, unavoidably immersed.

Backing up a bit, my four-day stay in Seattle was frantic and brief. I had enough time to drop off the little lady, see my family a bit, do my taxes (well, start them at least), reinstall windows, run a few errands, and then I was back on a plane for another two months.

I think it was a good idea to visit home at the halfway point of the trip, but I'm still not sure. It was bittersweet and I felt like a ghost most of the time -- a reminder at best. It's hard for people to reconnect when they know you'll be gone as soon as their back is turned, and it's hard for me to connect, period.

Talked to my dad on the phone. Asked if he saw the Good Morning America appearance. He said he thought Diane Sawyer was very articulate and did a great job. No, seriously. That was his response. If there was humor to his words, it eluded him.

The weather in Seattle was grim. It's that time of year now. On the trip, when people ask us where we're from, we always hear this:

"Seattle? Oh, yes. Rain!"

But it's not the rain, folks. It's the gray. I've said it before. It's the gray.

By the time I'm back again, the cloud will have lifted. I look forward to that.

For my flight out, I sat next to an 83-year-old veteran from Eastern Washington who served in Tokyo at the end of WWII. He was assigned to guard the German embassy until its occupants could be shipped back to Germany. He'd come over from Europe where he served in the infantry, crossing through France into Dusseldorf and then sieging a small town near the border with Czechoslovakia.

His unit spent most of the war lost. Everyone was lost all the time, he said. The Germans removed all the signs and the maps were inaccurate, so they just wandered around hoping to stay alive. The town they attacked -- they completely missed where they were ordered to go. They only found it by accident, approaching from the rear at night, inadvertantly bypassing all the German defenses and taking the town without firing a shot.

It was an honor to meet him and get to listen to his stories. So much of an honor that I let him jab me in the ribs with his elbow while he read his book...for the first five hours. After that I sealed off the border and fortified my position until landing.

Anyway, here I am, exhausted, jet-lagged, eyes bloodshot, in this tiny little spaceship pod with chemically sanitized sheets and ionized air.

And now I will sleep the sleep of insect larvae.