Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ofuro time...

The apartment's hot-water boiler is broken, so I headed down to the local Sentō for a bath. Sentō are 'traditional' (well, I suppose this one is, although a lot are modernising to attract the increasing number of Japanese with baths in their homes) bathhouses where one essentially strips naked (sexes are segregated in virtually every Sentō these days), proceeds to thoroughly washing oneself in a designated area (a large row of taps and shower-heads; stools and buckets are provided) before heading for the baths themselves – having rinsed several times. The bath-water is hot enough to peel the skin off a rhino, and I don't fully understand how old Japanese men manage to stay in them for over twenty minutes, whereas I feel quite cooked after three or four. This may sound uncomfortable, but after two or three sessions of dipping into the boiling water, it's amazing how muscular tension seems to fade away. Afterwards, you can cool off in the lounge, where an archaic (but effective!) massage chair finishes the job off with a three-minute back-rub for a mere ¥20 (less than €0.15, or 10 pence). Entry to these fine establishments costs little more than ¥500 (5 bucks), so all in all, it's a pretty good deal. Feeling very relaxed...

Halt, PGPzeit!

I've finally gone the extra geek-mile and got myself all suited up for PGP (including my Mail.app client), meaning that the paranoid security-conscious amongst you can now send me signed or encrypted email, files, etc...

I've generated two key-pairs for your pleasure use, for which you'll find the public keys below.

For egrefen@gmail.com (2048 bit encryption): (download key)
Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (Darwin)


And the higher security version...
For edward@egrefen.com (4096 bit encryption): (download key)
Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (Darwin)


Of course, either key can be used to send messages to either email, or to encrypt any file coming my way. A copy of them should be on most public key servers anyway, in case you're too lazy to save these, or have software that manages all this just fine for you.

Speaking of which, if you're an OS X user, this stuff is actually incredible easy to set up on your system (aaah, the joys of UNIX-like systems), and to integrate to Mail.app, etc... I'll make a post with some links in the near future.

That said, I don't think I ever plan on doing anything which really requires using PGP on a regular basis, but I'm sure it'll come in handy now and then.

On teaching English

I suppose it wouldn't be much a blog record of my time teaching in Japan if I didn't talk about the teaching a bit yet. In a nutshell, it's a fairly straightforward an easy job. I'm teaching Junior High, that's grades 7-8 (making the average age around 14-15ish, I guess). I teach five days a week, three 45 minute sessions a day (yeah, that's all) although I need to be at work from 9am (and start teaching at 9.30am) to roundabouts 3pm (although I typically get there around 8am-ish – don't ask why), and must eat lunch with the lovely bambinos. So all in all it breaks down to about 2h15 teaching, 2h30 break (including 1h30 where I don't need to supervise anyone or anything), and if you throw in the 15 minutes homeroom at the beginning and end of the day, and all the 5 minute breaks between classes, and the 30 minutes of prep and briefing at the beginning of the day, it all rounds up to a healthy 6 hours of "work". Effectively, preparing a day's worth of activities take 30 minutes, and out of the 135 minutes of teaching, I'm only talking for about 20-30 minutes and the rest is supervising assistants and group activities, so it's about an hour of what I'd actually call "work" per day. With a salary of ¥75,500 a week, that technically works out to the rate of a salary of ¥15,100 (about $150 or £75) per hour of honest work. If I wasn't such a nut for crazy academic topics, so bad at Japanese, and inapt (and rather unwilling) at fitting into a rigorous and formal society like that of Japan, I could totally see myself doing this sort of thing full time (that's a damn big 'if' though, so fat chance...).

The teaching itself is fun. The programme is more based on principles of encouraging English conversation and immersion into the language, rather than juku-like cramming for tests, so essentially I simply need to put the kids into a context where they can make conversation with one another (as well as with the assistants and me), and teach them some new vocabulary and sentence structures. Typically, this will involve demonstrating a model conversation or two between the assistants, then have the students ask each other questions based on the topic, and/or form original conversations of their own based on the vocabulary and sentence structure presented in the model conversation. Other activities include more action based activities (i.e. there's a cool sheet of weird challenges such as "Can you say 'thank you' in four languages?" or "Can you roll your tongue?", and the kids – having been introduced to the vocabulary, and well as expressions for asking someone to do something – must go around the school and harass the staff to have them perform the action for them and whatnot), a few short stories with question-and-answer sessions, and typically the day is wrapped up with a language-training board-game of sorts that either introduces some new vocabulary, or helps them revise the topical vocabulary covered during earlier sessions. To make all this even easier, I have an extremely small class (compared to previous years), with just eight kids for two assistants (and myself).

The true "challenge" is keeping everyone entertained and happy (I'm working for a commercial programme, after all – they want happy students, aka "potential future returnees"). It's always difficult to gauge how good some of the students are, since they're all fairly shy at first blush (pun intended) – a mix of being Japanese and, more importantly, being teenagers. Some of them have only been studying English at school for a few months, while others have either lived abroad, or been doing Eiken (this programme) for a few years, or had private English tuition or classes for few years. Fortunately, after a day or two (or, with this week's group, after about an hour), the ice is broken and (much) conversation ensues, making it easier to evaluate individual levels of comfort with the ol' English.

The kids also have 45 minutes of music class (in English), as well as sports (ditto). We have lunch with them, which is a great time for them to plague you with indiscreet questions about just about anything. Apparently, being French and American is sufficient for me to be qualified as a "hafu" (literally short for "half-breed"... ain't Japan great?). I thought the term was reserved for people that are genuinely of mixed ethnicity (I mean, you can't exactly call American a well-defined monolithic cultural heritage, being quite a melting-pot of ethnic groups). So far, I've managed to dodge the questions about my age, which may be the cause for some surprise for them. Some of the assistants thought I was in my mid-to-late 20s, which is a bit depressing (well, not that much, but ouch nonetheless).

Anyway, today (Tuesday) will be the 2nd day of my 2nd week of teaching. Still a bit under two weeks of teaching at ISSH to go, and then it's off to god-knows-where for a four-day summer-camp-type-thing, followed by a week of laid-back tourism around Tokyo. Maybe I'll finally get a chance to climb Mt. Fuji. Screw it... maybe I'll simply get a chance to finally see Mt. Fuji. Who knows?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Views from Tokyo Part III

Yet another set of photos from places 'round Tokyo...

A shot from Shibuya. In a city seemingly designed with grey-lovers in mind, the most colour you can expect to find is in the leaves of a few trees, here and there, and in the flurry of advertisements and corporate banners/logos/digiscreens/etc... I like the contrast, here, between the naked white/grey building on the right, and the multi-coloured façades everywhere else.

Just your average glass-pane fronted building. I thought the idea of taking a picture of the reflected building, while using the windows as an alignment grid, sounded interesting enough to justify a snapshot. Artsy-fartsy, eh?

Now, don't ask me what this is. According to this:
it's a "fossil of the time". What time? Perhaps that oft'-talked-about "that time", or perhaps it's "the time" as in "THE time". You know, the one... you don't know? I don't know...

Another shot of it, for good measure.

Who said Tokyo wasn't green? I thought it looked good, how the buildings in the back seem to peek out from the trees.

A familiar view when coming from Shibuya station. Yes, the whole surface (including the side) is a big-ass screen. You've seen "Lost In Translation", right? Right?

More Shibs. Interesting visual mix of a broad, square building next to a thin, curvy one. But then again, a lot of Tokyoite architecture is interesting in a contrastive way.

Parliamentary elections tomorrow (Sunday 29th). Last-ditch effort on the part of this candidate to garner some attention. I guess he's running for a greener Tokyo (or was high when suggesting the van design). Errr... Aloha?

People meeting in front of Hachiko. Let's get a better shot of him...

Aaah, Hachiko. The meeting place in front of Shibuya station. I think the story goes something along these lines: Hachiko was some dude's dog. Dude leaves, tells dog to wait, dude never comes back, dog waits, dog dies, people build statue in honour of this allegoric instantiation of the virtues of persistence and faithfulness, much valued in Japanese society. Now serves as an easily spotted meeting place for locals and gaijin alike. Somewhere along the line, the message got lost, I suppose.

The (in)famous big 'X' crosswalk in Shibs, quite busy on this fine Saturday.

Yup. Very busy... Anyway, after taking these fine shots, and grabbing some lunch, I headed down to Akihabara for some nice snapshots of Akihabara Electric Town.

Only in Japan, ladies and gentlemen...
Well, actually I heard they had 'air guitar aerobics' in Germany. I'm not sure which is more disturbing.

You can buy just about anything electronics-related, in Akihabara. This stall specialises in surveillance equipment. If you look closely, you'll spot me taking the picture on one of the screens.

Initially, I took this picture to illustrate how the Japanese will build just about anywhere (earthquakes == instant death, in this shop, no?), but I now also realise how freaky that sign is. Would you go in?

This looks like Shibuya, but the EXIF data for this photo assures me I took this Akihabara (a computer wouldn't lie, would it now. Eh, Hal?). I guess everything really does look the same, around here. Anyway, just more of me being artsy by taking reflected buildings.

The pedestrian area around Akihabara Electric Town.

Man, that's a lot of a geeks. Although I guess I can't really say that in good faith...

Haha, I thought this was lovely. In Europe/US/etc, celebrities will plug products. Here, cartoon characters do the job just as well.

I know it looks like I took this picture because there was a Peugeot in it, but I honestly just wanted a broad shot of the road. Seriously!

In contrast with the above, more pedestrian roads in Akihabara. Load to buy here, if you want to build a computer, or indulge in weird adult fetishes...

A vertical view of the above.

"The Computer", eh? Now we know who really runs the country.

Perhaps because I've been reading one of Stewart Shapiro's books on mathematics recently, but the geometrical relations between the building's lines and the electric wires struck me as worthy of some attention.

That's one hell of a view from the first floor.

Back in Setagaya, more general geometrical artsy-ness....

What can I say? That's a really sweet design.

A house for those who really want to escape the fact that there are multi-storey buildings about 10 meters down the road, to the left and right.

They sure know how to handle gardens here. Or certainly, a lot better than I can handle taking pictures with longer exposures. The blurring makes the picture look a bit strange, so I kept it.

Ditto here. Between day and nightfall, this path seems a bit surreal.

I took this while frustratingly (and unsuccessfully) trying to set the exposure settings to capture the foreground as well. Despite not achieving this goal, I liked the outcome enough to keep the photo.

That's all for now...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

On bad coffee

Coffee in Japan is easy to come by. They love the stuff here. Well... mostly ice coffee. The problem, is that this coffee is american-grade weak, whereas I'm more of an espresso guy. So while the cans of ice coffee you find in vending machines (conveniently located every 10 meters, anywhere and everywhere in Tokyo) are cheap, at ¥120 (about a 0.80€, or 0.50£), I need a few during the day to get my dose. It's also hard to guess what you're getting based on the label... apparently, based on how "European bitter blend" tastes, europeans like their coffee week, milky, and super-sweet (they must be thinking of the british...); "quality roast" basically means "sh*t"; and "deluxe espresso" means "sugarwater + eau de brown crayon"...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not so friendly ATMs

Goddamn... Today, I managed to misplace the remaining ¥6000 (roughly $60) of cash I had in my pocket, probably while rushing for a train to Shibuya. This really bites, since no Japanese ATM seems to want to accept my bloody PNC card, which means I'm completely moneyless until friday's pay... This really sucks.

Update: If ever I become famous in any function, this will be one for the history books. In the meantime (or more likely in lieu of this improbable eventuality), you can simply colour me stupid. It turns out, I had simply misunderstood the instructions, was putting my card in the wrong way, and can actually take cash out of the ATM at the 7-11 just down the road.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Views from Tokyo Part II

A few more photos of my strolling around Harajuku and Shibuya, yesterday. Took a lot of video footage. I'll look into getting a website of sorts to host them, when I have time...

I wanted to start a collection of crazy signs and shop names (of which there is an endless supply in this wonderful country). I'm not sure if "Candy Stripper" is the name of the shop, the name of a brand, a genuine advertisement for a candy-clad stripper, or simply some random English. Frankly, all options are very plausible.

More shop fronts. Seriously ill... Is that word still in fashion?

Errrr... yes? That's one seriously freaky rabbit. Why there's a shrine-like construct dedicated to its glory (or whatever) in the middle of a shopping district, I don't know.

Frank from Donnie Darko, anyone?

"Tornadoes, fresh from Kansas. Trip to Oz not guaranteed (see local head shop for further assistance)."

So, are they going to release all those balloons onto traffic or something? This is one rather unattractive building... I don't know why I took a picture. Maybe the balloons...

You've got some pretty interesting characters making the rounds, in Harajuku. Seriously, apparently these girls sometimes design these whole costumes themselves. The make-up must take some time too. As you can see, this one is going for the "bicentennial witch" look, very en vogue since the spring collection hit the stores. (If you're American and perhaps don't quite get sarcasm: yes, I'm joking).

There's something very disturbing about a shop called "Nudy Boy" advertising "SALE SALE SALE SALE"... I gotta submit this to engrish.com.

I'm not quite sure if this is the place where the well-to-do-and-slightly-arrogant shop, or whether the shop name seeks to evoke the poetic imagery of colourful berries resting on a blanket of freshly fallen snow. Maybe both...

The weird architecture geek in me comes out again. This Audi building has an exceptional design, as the pictures above and below hopefully show. It sort of reminds me of glitches on 3D engines, when some vertices get messed up and the surfaces go all funky like this. Maybe the architect played a lot of Half-Life.

(See above).

"The Royal Milk"... need we say more?

Quest Hall! The shop that caters to ye olde dragon-slaying, wizard-defeating, princess-saving princely crowd.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem, as illustrated by Japanese smoking regulations. Or maybe the signs on the side define the boundaries of a meter-wide smoking area, which automagically stop the cigarette smoke from travelling further.

No comment...

On nodding

One of these little things I love about Japan is the nodding. Actually, it's more a quick and easy form of bowing for minor incidents of politeness, but its frequency of occurrence makes it worthy of mention. As you may most certainly know, the Japanese are quite big on bowing within almost any semi-formal to formal context (ie any context involving anyone over 20, anyone wanting a job, having a job, wanting to keep his/her job, etc...) as a mark of politeness and respect. However, there are many occasions where you want/need to impart a small mark of respect, but do not have time for a complete bow (or deem there is no need for one), so you give a polite nod. It happens all the time. Crossing the street and a driver stops for you? *nod* (and they tend to nod back). Make way for someone on the sidewalk? *nod* (ditto). Make room in the subway? *nod* Sit down next to someone? *nod* Interact with someone in pretty much any manner that doesn't involve physical violence (or unwarranted contact)? *nodnodnod*. I'm starting to feel like one of those little bobbing-head dolls that were all the rage a few years back (God I hope that fad has faded away into the nothingness from whence it came), but it certainly is nice to feel acknowledged... but not too acknowledged.

On scary clowns

I was walking back home from Futako-tamagawa, back towards Kaminoge – incidentally along the same path I'd walk home along when returning from teaching at St Mary's – when I had a bizarre flashback concerning a train of thought I once had while walking down this path on a rainy day, many years ago (ie. four). It was a dark and rainy day, quite sombre, and I was toddling back home under my trusty umbrella, and I remember having specifically this line of thought... there are many side roads branching off, quite a few side paths, some stairs, and hence a lot of dead angles for someone approaching them (ie about to walk past them). And somehow I got into thinking, on this rainy sombre day, that it would be quite freaky if, while walking past one of the aforementioned dead angles, there were to be some messed up psycho-clown waiting there (perhaps under and umbrella himself) for a victim.

... and I thought that a few years of logic, mathematics and physics had warped my mind, but I was evidently not too sane to begin with.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Views from Tokyo Part I

A few photos I took over the past few days...

Because of earthquakes, most wiring in the Tokyo area is above ground (something fairly rare in Europe, but somewhat frequent in the US). As a result, every 20 or so meters, one encounters one of these huge transformers. They may seem fairly unesthetic, but they somehow seem to fit in with the general vibe of Tokyo (even in richer, leafier neighbourhoods like Setagaya). They also serve as a reminder of how electricity Japanese society is (as are most first world countries). I think I'll take a few more pictures of these things and build a collection.

Another one.

A street in the upper-crust neighbourhood of Seta-gaya. It must cost a small fortune to own a house here, given the collection of luxurious import cars parked in front of each one of them. A very nice place for a morning stroll, away from the hustle and bustle of the main roads.

One of the few traditional houses around St Mary's. Hard to believe this is in an urban metropolis like Tokyo, eh?

The view, from just a few steps away from the house pictured above.

I just thought this looked cool...

This sort of set of stairs is fairly common in hilly Tokyo. Going down...

... and coming back up.

Looks like a quaint little stream, eh? Good thing you can't smell a photograph...

Very totalitarian looking luxury apartments between Setagaya and Futako-Tamagawa, suitably named "Setahaus".

A small thingamabob the size of a credit-card, which you might notice on the ground near "Setahaus". Marks the beginning of Setagaya-ku (hence the arrow).

A pointless shot which turned out nicely. I was trying to see how my camera would fare at high shutter-speeds by taking a picture of a flashing light.

Some interesting architecture. Loads of weird and wonderful constructions like this, across the Big Mikan. Expect more pictures like this... may more.

I thought this lone house, isolated from other buildings by some rough (soon to be built on) ground, made for a nice photo.

A common site in high-pedestrian-traffic areas like Shibuya or Shinjuku (the latter, in this case): politicians sending representatives (or representing themselves) to canvas directly to the public. Here, some (presumably) washed-out pop-star singing some encouraging songs to support his favourite candidate. Wasn't too impressive, musically, although it was a riot picturing similar political tactics in France or the UK.

More interesting architecture. A bank of sorts, I believe.

The slogan/name "Universal Language" appealed to the philosophy of language geek inside me. I'm not a chomskian though, I swear! Once again, a cool façade which somewhat resembles the contents of a rather large library shelf.

A common view in areas like Shibuya or Shinjuku: shedloads of people walking around, people yelling to try and get you into their store, and big-ass screens and adverts everywhere.

This was taken around 3.30am (jet-lag!), while experimenting with long exposure times (15s), to take pictures in low-light conditions. The result was somewhat interesting, but not quite what I expected. I decided to keep the photo anyway...

Ditto above: early morning, experimenting with shutter-speed and ISO settings. This picture has a slightly surrealist feeling to it, hence its place in my collection. The blurring is accidental, but somehow works with the mood at the time (ie. me being half awake before 4am).