Monday, December 12, 2005

 

Review: Hyatt Regency Osaka

At the weekend we stayed at the Hyatt Regency Osaka on a cheap package from Trapics, 17,000 yen for two in a 40 square metre room, including breakfast.

The hotel's one problem is it is a bit far out from the centre of town, requiring two changes of train and subway to get to it from the main station Umeda, or alternatively there is a free bus mostly every half hour from outside the station to the front door. The advertised journey time is just 30 minutes, comparable with the public transport route, but, especially on the to Osaka trip, the traffic tends to be rather heavy, and it took us 50 minutes to get in.

The hotel is pretty new (I think about five years old) done in a very posh marble, vaguely Art Deco, style. Check-in suffers from a lack of a defined queue, and although they had someone on hand to try to guide people to the best queue, both times we lined up we had queue-jumpers passing us. The deal we had was a cash-only deal, but I felt it was a bit impolite when they asked us for 20,000 yen up-front. Most places would have asked for just a credit card impression, I would have thought.

One thing you should do before going to any Hyatt is to apply for a member's card, which entitles you to bath robes and a free soft drink, which we could take advantage of even though we were on a cheapskate stay plan! The room itself was very well fitted out. A minimal muted design, with all the expected features including free wireless (wireless, whether free or not, is still not a common in Japanese hotels) and a very generous bathroom with separate shower booth and a good selection of toiletries to fremantle. However, the sliding bathroom door, whilst increasing the available space was a bit noisy to use. The hotel also has air humidifiers available for free loan, if required.

Since we were staying around Christmas time, I did worry that the decor might be just too Xmas-y, but fortunately there was just the right level of well-appointed trees and no muzak!

Breakfast was a full buffet (the was the option of an alternative table service dining area, but we took the buffet) with all the expected options, and an egg bar for cooking omlettes and the like to order, but this also suffered from a poor queueing system. All the food was very tasty and very fresh - often a worry with these buffets is that some of the food dries out after standing for a long time - and all well-presented. The normal price for the breakfast is apparently 3200 yen, perhaps a little steep, but I would not have grudged paying that price.

Additional points: free newspapers - they gave me both the Yomiuri and the Japan Times; free cheap slippers; the room above us had kids running around until 1 am, which was a bit noisy; all staff speak English - at international hotels I always use English myself; although we had a non-smoking room, there was a definite stale cigarette smell; finally, if you're going to Universal Studios Japan and can find a good deal (say about 25,000 yen including breakfast and one-day pass and free shuttle bus) I can highly recommend the place.

Service★★★★☆
Food★★★★★
Room★★★★☆
Value for Money★★★★★

Friday, December 09, 2005

 

Today's Japanese lesson: 等分布性

I came across this word through work, as we needed to find a Japanese translation for equidistribution. After a bit of a lengthy Google search, I finally discovered the likely translation, 等分布性, とうぶんぷせい, toubunpusei, a word that gets a mere four hits on Google. Well, five once this article makes it.

Oh, and can someone please kick the Blogger servers back into action?


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

 

Worst-designed kitty litter ever!

Trying to find a good litter for our kitten to poo in, we tried one made from okara, which is soya bean husks. Interestingly enough, okara is classified as an industrial waste product, as no-one's really too interested in eating it (although I did have some last night (okara, not kitty litter!)), so a lot of it gets chucked away, so they need regulations to control the disposal.

We bought it, and kitty, who does like the occasional nibble at the paper-based products we'd used before, decided she liked the flavour, and started seriously getting into eating the stuff! We checked out the label in more detail, and it said it was edible, but if your cat eats too much, please go to the vet. It also said along with the soya bean husks, it also contained corn starch, so no wonder Aria was finding it so tasty, to such a degree that at one point she was ignoring her fresh food in favour of slightly kittie pee-flavoured litter!

Kitty also started doing wonderfully green-coloured poo, which, thankfully, I'll not upload pictures of. I wonder if since Aria should be teething about now, she wanted something a bit crunchy rather than the rather soggy water-soaked dried food we are currently giving her? I might try going back to the shop and asking for a refund as it seems rather stupid to not add something to dissuade cats from having a nibble.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

 

Update on sitting next to the gaijin on the train

Following on from an earlier post, I attended an SGI http://www.sgi.org/ (well, Soka Gakkai Japan International Division) meeting last weekend and one of the Japanese people giving a speech mentioned that he had shakubukued http://www.sgi-usa.org/publications/world_tribune/b2b/themeaningofshakubu.htm five foreigners, all of whom he had initially approached in the train.

As an SGI member, I think that's great, but as a person who likes his peace and quiet on the train I'm not quite so sure!


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

Panasonic Lumix FX-8 review

Panasonic Lumix FX-8 photoSince my previous posting regarding purchasing said camera seems to be a popular article, I thought I better add a review of the camera as promised.

The first thing that struck me about the camera (well, second, after the pinkness!) was the size and feel, just right for slipping out of a pocket into my hand. The back LCD screen is very large - over 80% of the total area - and very clear, even on reasonably bright days. Since there is no optical viewfinder, anti-glare is an essential feature, and with Panasonic's patented anti-shake system built-in, worries about wobbly photos due to holding the thing at arm's length are negated. Start-up time from power-on is just over a second or two, and similarly - ahh, don't know the word, but the time to prepare for a shot: auto-focus, light balance, etc - is less than half a second, essential for many action shots.

One slight problem with the very generous back screen is that to compensate the configuration buttons are a bit small, which might be an issue for fat-fingered users! The setup menus are also a bit confusing, but that might be partially due to me having not read the manual and partially due to it all being in Japanese. For instance, one slight usability issue is that to change flash mode (auto, always on, always off, red-eye, etc) the down button must be pressed to cycle through the options, but it is all too easy to miss the correct setting and have to cycle round all six or so options again. Surely popping up a wee menu after the first press would be a better idea?

The Lumix FX-8, in common with most other new cameras, I suppose, is a bit memory-hungry in the default mode; 5 mega-pixels in fine mode creates images over 2 megabytes in size, meaning that 64 megabyte SD cards cannot even hold 30 pictures. I've set it to 3 mega-pixels in fine mode, which gives a more practical 1 megabyte file size. Similarly, the video mode records at 30 frames per second at 640x480, and since it stores files in Motion JPEG format (presumably) the same 64 megabyte SD card fills up in less than one minute!

I've not examined the software that comes with the Lumix, as I import files by popping out the SD card (located in the battery compartment, but no removal of the battery necessary) and putting it into a separate reader, and then use a third-party photo album software tool.

I also bought the official Lumix FX Series camera case at the same time, in colour-coordinated pink (more a muted burgundy) leather. They fit together well, but the case does not have a pocket for spare memory cards or batteries. Even though the specification claims 300 photos between recharges, a spare battery is always useful to have to hand. To recharge the battery it must be removed and put in an integrated wall plug charger unit. This is a multi-voltage device, so there are no worries when travelling abroad, other than the usual plug prong adapter issues.

Image quality is very good, although printed out photos are a bit blurry, although that might very well be more a problem with my printer (Pixus 550i with recycled ink cartridges) and software!

There are a whole bunch of features that I still have to read the manual to find out about, such as a baby feature - enter the date of birth, and when you select that mode the baby's age is stamped on the shop; and food mode, for the Japanese obsession with photographing their dinners.

Panasonic Lumix FX-8 Rating Score
Price★★★☆☆A free case would have been nice
Usability★★★★★No camera shake and excellent night-time performance
Image quality★★★★☆Perhaps I've just not learnt how to use it correctly yet?
Design and build quality★★★★★Everything looks well put together

Monday, November 28, 2005

 

Debito Arudou's tinfoil hat too tight again!

The Hokkaido Crusader had another article published in the Japan Times, which was well up to his usual standard. Let's have a look at what he says:

People are still reeling from September's LDP landslide election, realizing that Koizumi can essentially legislate whatever he wants. For foreigners, that brings some bad news.

Are they? What people? Anyway, Koizumi can't, as things still have to get past the upper house, where he needs the help of New Komeito to pass anything, and New Komeito are one of the most "foreigner-friendly" parties.

Koizumi's previous Cabinet bore no fewer than three ministers who mentioned, in their introductory speeches, the alleged foreign crime wave (even though the media, including this column on Oct. 7, 2003, has long debunked this).

There is some truth in the "foreign crime wave", if you look in detail.

Their plan: Issue "IC Cards," or credit card-sized identification cards, containing computer chips to track people.

IC cards cannot really be used to track people, especially people who don't want to be tracked.

One form of IC card (the "shutsu nyuu koku" card) will be issued to anyone (Japanese or not) crossing the Japanese border, upon request and at their expense.

At whose request? That sentence reads as if it is at the expense of the traveller! Who would want to pay for that?

The other, the "zairyuu card," is obligatory and replaces the Gaijin Card. All resident aliens (except the generational "Zainichi" ethnic "foreigners," who remain unchipped) must still carry it 24/7 or face arrest.

Just the same as the existing gaijin card. Oh, and the comma there should be outside the quote, as it's not quoted speech.

This "Gaijin Chip" will contain data such as: "name, nationality, birthday, passport information, visa status, address, workplace, educational institution if student etc."

Just the same as the existing gaijin card.

But just in case, fingerprinting will be reinstated to imprint foreigners both entering and leaving the country.

Like in the USA.

They mention benefits to both foreigners and society by tracking alien visits to, quote, "museums, consultative government bodies, national art museums . . ."

I don't know where this quote comes from, and is he trying to get a cheap laugh with the word "museums" twice?

It still amounts to central control of untrustworthy elements, and treating foreigners like criminal suspects.

How? The card seems to be voluntary for tourists as suggested above. Also, demographic information about tourists (I wonder if there is a discount scheme involved?) is invaluable.

All data will be stored for a vague amount of time (perhaps indefinitely) in a bureau called (in katakana) the "Intelligence Center."

Indefinitely isn't a vague amount of time - perhaps it's just that the length of data retention hasn't been decided yet?

Orwellian overtones aside, consider the policy in practice: Workplaces, schools, hotels, etc. will be legally required to report any changes in foreigner employment, domicile, visa, etc., through swipes of IC Cards at strategically-positioned machines.

That is very similar to the current situation. Who is going to be issued with the card readers though? The infrastructure will not be cheap, so I wonder if they really will be placed in locations outwith government or police offices.

This means foreigners will now find it difficult to, say, make an anonymous inquiry at a ward office without having their data swiped.

Are public phones also going to need the card to work?

The proposal specifically considers swiping stations for apartments, weekly mansions, and other categories of lodgings, essentially expanding Japanese prison conditions nationwide.

Spoken like someone who has never been in prison!

There is a pattern here. We already know the Foreign Registry Law was set up in 1947 specifically to track the alien in our midst.

Well, that's a surprise! That's like tut-tutting about how Building Codes were set up specifically to track how houses were being constructed.

However, as this column discussed (Oct. 18), it is being applied to all foreigners. This is not only against the law, but also a breach of trust.

No it's not. I and a number of other foreign residents have not been asked when we have stayed at hotels.

My point is that no matter how sweet the LDP may make its Gaijin Chip proposal sound, there is no telling what will happen when bureaucrats get their hands on it.

Ahh, the slippery slope argument, the favourite of the tinfoil hat crowd!

Their enforcement has been most unscrupulous this year, and given the urgency of the policy putsch (and the vulnerability of foreigners), I foresee great potential for further enforcement abuse.

Now, the favourite word of Mr Arudou's, putsch! It does mean "thrust" in the original German, but he is writing in English, so the English meaning must be used, namely coup d'état.

Now, let's slide down the slippery slope...

For example, look what happened to Japan's lifetime employment system, where full-time work (especially in academia) meant lifetime work. That was replaced, after a century of guinea-pigging the foreigners, with contract employment, in the form of laws like 1997's "Sentaku Ninkisei Hou."

Ignoring his verbification of an undenounable word, I wonder if he has any actual evidence of this bizarre claim, other than his own fevered imagination?

According to the National Union of General Workers, contract labor now makes up [...] 90 percent of foreign labor in the Japanese workforce.

Considering that over 75% (I can't find a reference to the exact figure) of foreigners don't stay longer than three years, I don't really see that as a surprising figure.

Foreign residents cannot vote and thus mean little to politicians.

Read up about New Komeito.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

 

Hamsters City!

For some reason I find the Hamsters City web comic fascinating. It seems surreal, as if the mistakes are deliberately inserted in order to hook the reader.


 

Restaurant review: Pizza Patio, Motomachi, Kobe

Pizza Patio interior Pizza Patio is a nice wee Italian in Motomachi shopping street - find it by entering the big arcade that starts across the road from the west side of Daimaru, then walk less than a minute down there until you see a sign on the right for the restaurant on the second floor. Opposite is a small independent record shop, a massage parlour and Familiar children's clothing store. If you can, be sure to pick up a copy of Hot Pepper before you go as there are usually discount tickets to be found there, although it's usually for their cheese fondue. It claims some sort of Canadian heritage according to signs inside the shop, but exactly why, I just do not know!

The main selling point for this place is the cheap sets - weekday lunchtimes they have pasta sets for 800 yen to catch the office crowd, and weekends their lunch is a starter, main pasta, pizza or risotto, and a drink (including beer or wine!) for 1,150 yen, served until a very generous 5pm, after which the same menu goes up a mere 100 yen. Adding an extra 200 yen gives you a choice of three desserts.

I chose the tomato mozzarella starter, which featured some still slightly green and suspiciously crunchy tomato and what I suspect was Hokkaido mozzarella, thickly cut. It was closer to a cheddar in texture although the taste was mostly mozzarella. The oil, though, was good quality olive and delicately flavoured. If I'd not been expecting authentic mozzarella, I'd have not been as disappointed. My wife had the octopus starter, which she enjoyed, although there was just half a dozen rather thin-sliced pieces on the plate. The main course for me was a margarita pizza; they bake quite a deep-pan pizza with lots of juicy tomato to seep though into the base. Excellent stuff, although from their a la carte menu their ratatouille pizza is even better! Dessert was supposed to be cheesecake, but they were sold out, so I chose ice cream instead; my wife selected the panacota. Last time we had had a dessert set from them the pannacotta turned out to be a single bite-sized blob, so we didn't hold out much hope, but this time it was full-sized, extremely creamy serving. The ice cream, too, was not just a couple of scoops but a wee parfait topped with cream and pistachios, bottomed with cornflakes, and even a couple of small cubes of fruit thrown in for good measure.

The shop itself usually plays a lot of 80s US and UK pop (there must be a huge marketplace for supplying piped music to restaurants in Japan!) and taking a seat by the window gives a nice view onto the arcade for people watching. However, smoking and non-smoking is not segregated at all, and there is little effective ventilation, so it can get very smoky, though fortunately not this time. Also, be sure to pick up a stamp card when you pay - one stamp per 500 yen spent, and 10 stamps for a 500 yen discount, making it roughly 10% off. Service is efficient and flawless, but missing any extra effort, either sincere or fake, that most other places manage.

Food★★★★☆
Atmosphere★★★☆☆
Service★★☆☆☆
Value for money★★★★★

Thursday, November 24, 2005

 

These dramatised reconstructions

One of the more popular genre of Japanese TV involves a bunch of Z-list celebs sitting around watching a reconstruction of some nasty crime (if the subject matter is foreign) or heartwarming tale (if Japanese). Most of these reconstructions are shot on a budget of about 5000 yen, and often feature foreign faces that crop up in every other show. I have in fact once seen one guy play two roles in the same skit. I'm sure there must be a blog or web site chronicling the life and times of them, or if there isn't, perhaps I should start one.

My all-time classic bad reconstruction was one of Charles and Diana, where Diana was bulemic down a very Japanese electric toilet, followed by the royal family celebrating Christmas gathered round a totally bare table, bar a very Japanese strawberry cake.


 

Kobe harbour

My wife took this rather nice photo of some random bloke feeding seagulls at Kobe harbour today. The harbour area is where we spent a lot of time when dating, and visit quite often these days too.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

 

Forgive the recent hiatus!

Last weekend I had an MRI scan - just a preventitive one, but the doc, considering my age, non-smoking and minimal drinking, extremely low blood pressure, etc, seemed rather confused as to why I was bothering!

Next, we had a funeral to go to, or at least a small meeting at the house of the dead afterwards. My first Japanese funeral, and when the conversation go on to the picking through the ashes for nice bits of bone - apparently, playing UFO Catcher with the skull is most auspicious - I pulled a bit of a funny face which did annoy the wife a bit. They also talked about piling up the bits of bone, and how there were no black bits left, which shows she didn't have cancer, or something like that.

Fortunately for the closest family involved, even though they are not particularly religious (but not that that stops the need for priests) the deceased aunt was Soka Gakkai, one of the selling points of this religion being that there are only laiety, so no need to get in the local money-grabbers (one million yen per priest is the norm) to do the honours.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

 

Where are all the English beggars?

Get together any group of embittered gaijin, and no doubt the conversation will soon turn to language beggars, those Japanese who approach you in the street just to practise English on you. However, the strange thing for me is that I have never once in about eight years have anyone approach me in a fashion that might resemble the stereotype we all know and hate.

I have had exactly two people randomly speak to me in the train - once was in English, but he was from and a native of Sri Lanka, and the second, the typical oyaji salaryman conversed purely in Japanese! I had one other encounter at Suzuka one year, where a couple came to chat in English and Japanese with me, but it was more due to the common interest in F1 than a burning need to practice English. Maybe it's different up in Tokyo, but Osaka seems fortunately free of these beggars.

Funnily enough, the one person who came closest to being written off as a language beggar was my wife on our very first date!


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