Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Last night in town

Last night was unusual, to say the least. Being my last real night (not counting tonight, since I leave early tomorrow) in Tokyo for some time, I wanted to make it count. So, equipped with ¥30,000 (which I ended up no spending more than a few thousand of... a pleasant surprise) I hopped on the train(s) to Shinjuku, and made my way to the fabled Golden Gai. I must admit I was a bit intimidated, as Golden Gai has the (justified) reputation of housing some amazing little (the term "little" is an understatement) hole-in-the-wall (literally) bars, quite a few of which are not too friendly to foreigners, some of which are not too friendly even to Japanese people whose face they don't recognise. In short, it's more the sort of area where you need to be introduced to be welcome.

However, a few of these establishments came recommended to the cultured visitor by the Lonely Planet guide, and the one I made my way for, "La Jetée" (which can be seen in the 1982 film "La Truite" by Joseph Losey, or in the info-jacket in the new DVD release of the 1962 film "La Jetée" by Chris Marker), was reputed to be the destination of choice of directors and producers of films both foreign (one can spot bottles by Francis Ford Coppola – I'm told Sofia has dropped by too, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Marker, etc...) and indigenous, and also for having a tradition of only speaking French (alongside Japanese, of course). The bar itself was about the size of your average mini-bus, and could seat a physical maximum of eight people (crammed in), but nonetheless one does not feel claustrophobic (I think the tight space forces conviviality and socialising, and one forgets about the negative aspects). The mama-san, by the name of Kawai (no second 'i') spoke very good French, and was very welcoming; the drinks were reasonably priced, and quite good; and the company was exceptional. During the course of the evening I met a host of people (pretty much everyone in the bar... which isn't that hard) counting amongst them some documentary journalists from NHK, some Swiss press and a swiss director, and some folks from the Japanese film industry, including a rather well known producer by the name of Hiroaki Fujii, whom had been friends with and worked with the Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Everyone was extremely friendly, and we all shared a few drinks.

I missed the last train (as I had intended to... they're only at midnight). I had brought money for the taxi, as a last resort, but was reluctant to use it as it would cost me an arm and a leg, so I planned to spend the night hopping around bars and moseying around Shinjuku, reputed for its 'interesting' nightlife. The plan sort of fell through when I started being approached every few metres by hustlers and yappers and shady-looking black guys trying to drag me to the nearest (certainly overpriced and probably dodgy) strip-club, or asking me if I wanted company (hopefully not theirs!). Not too much later, it was even more direct, as it became impossible to go a minute without being approached by some pimp with dyed-hair and sunglasses, or simply by prostitutes themselves (some of them so old and unattractive I wondered why they even bothered – then again, this being Japan, there's a market for anything I suppose), at which point I thought it best to seek refuge in a nearby manga/internet café. These institutions offer you a private "booth" (more like a cubicle) with an internet-connected PC, a table and a computer chair, or a more comfy lounge chair and PS2 if you're willing to pay extra (which I wasn't), as well as free drinks (score!) and access to an enormous library of Japanese comic books, for a mere ¥900 for 5 hours (night rate). During the day, people come to read and use these places as a cyber-cafe. However, during the evening it's mostly used as a cheap place to crash. I can't say it was the most comfortable place to get some rest (should have gone for the lounge chairs), but the price was very good (I certainly drank more that ¥900 of soda before leaving), and it did the trick.

Nearing 6am, I left to see the fish market at Tsukiji. Fate would have it that today was a "Regular Holiday" and it was closed (same thing happened to be when I went to the Asakusa Kannon Onsen yesterday!), so I settled for breakfast at a nearby fish shop which doubled as a small restaurant serving very fresh sushi (ie. you sometimes get to take a look at the fish which'll be in your tummy soon, swimming around the tank). Not being that hungry, I opted for quality over quantity and sampled a bit of the famed fatty-tuna (the most expensive sushi on the menu, generally not available in your average sushi restaurant), which went for ¥400 a piece (compared with somewhere in the ¥100-200 range for two sushi, for most of the other types of sushi on offer). The flesh as very tender, and had quite a subtle but pleasant taste. While it would probably cost a small fortune to have a serious meal out of it, the experience was thoroughly enjoyable.

So after a pleasant day in the Eastern Imperial Gardens, the evening was an interesting sandwich of sophistication, sleaziness, bizarre new experiences when it comes to sleeping arrangements, and a gourmet breakfast in an area smelling very fishy (in a good way). That's a pretty good way to end a trip.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Exponential girls bands

In the idle hours of morning, have been browsing the web. This is what I have discovered about Japanese music...

Morning Musume's recipe for (musical/other...) success:
1. Get loads of young girls to form a band.
2. Keep adding girls.
3. PROFIT!!!

Seriously, as the video (in the full post) below demonstrates, you're definitely taking it too far if you can make a song that lasts over six minutes just by introducing each band member...

Wrapping up the tourist life

What a(n expensive) day! I toured around the most controversial Yasukuni shrine (very beautiful), visited the possibly equally controversial Yushukan museum (ie. "We didn't actually start any of these wars and behaved in a just and civilised manner at all times"... then again, most of our history – or at least most people's perception of it – is quite similar in terms of "We're the good guys. We occasionally screw up, but overall our cause is glorious and good"). A most entertaining afternoon. I also picked up a copy of "I am a cat" by Sōseki Natsume, which I read on the train. I'm just 47 pages in, and it's been very enjoyable thus far. It makes me wonder why I didn't get a book to read on the train when I got here, given how much train-riding I've been doing. Actually, I have been dragging a copy of Stewart Shapiro's "Thinking about Mathematics". It's a very good read as well, but not exactly the ideal book for short bursts of reading on the train (not many philosophy books are... except the Tractatus, perhaps?).

After that, I went to an onsen/o-sentō (not sure how "mineral" the water was) in Kabukichō (in/near Shinjuku), of all places. The baths were nice (until I accidentally stepped into the electric one – again. They're relaxing, but you have to be mentally prepared for the weird sensation, and the even stranger feel in your limbs afterwards). And I had the pleasure (?) of having a hot bath in an o-furo shaped like a swastika. These symbols are very common in Japan, in the counter-clockwise form, to indicate Buddhist temples on maps (and on the temples themselves). However, this bath's shape was in the clockwise form, which an modern-german-history-aficionado friend of mine might be more familiar with. I wish I could have taken a picture, but – the place being full of naked people (as is generally the case in onsen and o-sentō) – that was unfortunately quite impossible.

I also had a 40-minute massage, which varied between interestingly pleasant and surprisingly painful, but in the end it left me feeling very relaxed (success!). Also, I think this place is probably the only place (or one of the few places) in Shinjuku where you can get the sort of massage your mother wouldn't disapprove of (unless she's very liberal minded about these things).

Anyway, got some nice photos and pictures of the Yasukuni-jinja experience, and a few random shots from around Shinjuku. I've been really lazy about posting these on the blog, but seeing as how I have nearly 400 high-res photos and a few hours of film, it's becoming a bit hard to cope. I'll upload the galleries onto my web page eventually, but I fear a lot of these (especially all the photos of my class) are going to remain for private use (and friends and family – those whom care to watch, anyway). If I get a more powerful computer (maaaybe... I have been bleeding money left and right these days, so that plan's on hold) and/or another external hard-drive (a bit short on storage these days – yeah... I probably shouldn't have spent another ¥2500 on pachinko this evening) I might patch all the footage together and upload it (at a lower res) onto the site (seeing how youtube probably won't accept a 3hr video, and it would be a pain in the behind to splice it up).

New Website!

With the purchase of iLife '08 and a .Mac account, I'm happy to announce that I finally have a website and the tools to make it non-fugly (or at least, not too much). Currently, you can visit it by following this link:, but soon (by the end of the week) it should be accessible from my own domain,

Thanks to the magic of embedded HTML, this blog will remain my main blog and be included on the site, since it's easier to update when I'm travelling or don't have access to my computer. So you will be able to continue accessing this blog (assuming anyone actually does) at the usual address, as well as through the main site.

The site itself is under (heavy) construction, but please don't hesitate to go over and browse around (if you want to).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The end...

... of Eiken (for this year), at least. I can't believe four weeks have gone by already. Only a month ago, I arrived in Japan, and now all the teaching is over. It was really fun, especially the summer camp, where I got to teach the older kids (something I feel more complicated to do), while getting to have fun with the younger ones (nursery rhymes, pranks at lunch, playing chicken-fight in the pool, and spending every waking hour running after the little buggers to make sure they don't bowl someone over). Best of both worlds, really. And the food this past week was so amazing... gonna be hard to go back to the 7-11 routine for the next few days, and then cook for myself again (ugh). Anyway, just a few more days, including a quick trip to Osaka and Kyoto, and some omiyage shopping for the folks and family, and then it's back off to France. Time sure flies when you're having fun... I wish I could stay. Well actually, I could stay and teach English, or even try and get a real teaching job at the international schools (eventually). However, as fun as that'd be, I'm fairly certain I'm more into the whole academic thing these days. Maybe later (ie. when I've barely scraped or perhaps even failed a PhD, and am looking for a job, while having a huge debt to mop up).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ending Eiken, and Tokyo Tower

I just got back from visiting Tokyo Tower, after a dinner with my friend Junko (one of the students from my 2003 Eiken spell, whom I've kept in touch with), in Hiroo. Dinner was good, and Tokyo Tower was arguably even better. It was a nice way to end off a busy week (class of twenty). I have a hard time believing it's all over already, with just a few days of summer camp to go. While keeping a group of eighteen kids in check is quite a task, I sure am going to miss it, or certainly some of them. There was a group of returnees doing all three weeks (or the latter two) that was particularly energetic an friendly, so it was a bit sad to see them go. Oh well, it's all further incentive to try and make time for some more Eiken next year, if I can find the time during a dissertation summer.

Monday, August 06, 2007

PGP for muppets such as myself

As you may recall from on of my previous posts on the matter of encryption, I've suited up for system for PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) goodness, by installing GNU's implementation of PGP, which goes by the name of GPG (GNU Privacy Guard). Acronyms galore...
The basic gist of it all is that GPG offers you a "pretty good" way of signing, encrypting, validating and decrypting pretty much anything a computer can read and store (files, email, text, etc). You generate a key-pair: a private key, and a public key, alongside an associated pass-phrase. You then stash the private key somewhere safe (presumably on your computer, although a thumb-drive or other removable media is ideal if you're very paranoid), and disseminate your public key to the public (duh) via email, your website, a blog post and/or a public key server (most of which sync their data every few minutes).

Your public key allows anyone to encrypt any file bound for your eyes only, as only your private key (used with your secret pass-phrase, it's fairly useless on its own, even if someone got their hands on it) will be capable of decrypting it. On the other hand, your private key (used with your secret pass-phrase), allows you to sign any text, which will allow anyone possessing your public key (or simply the capacity to connect to a public key server, provided your public key is on one), to verify both the integrity and origin of the data. The public key will not allow anyone to decrypt any files intended for your eyes only, nor will it provide malicious users with a way of forging your digital signature. Because of the asymmetric nature of this key-pair system, PGP gives your friends and contacts and easy way of communicating with you in a secure manner, without giving middle-men a chance to intercept information. You can even send encrypted data in plain text (it will appear as a large block of garbled characters), it won't make a difference. And in the worst case scenario, where someone gets a hold of your private key, they still need your pass-phrase. If you've used a non-dictionary pass-phrase, and generated a 2048 or 4096-bit key, it'll probably take them a loooong while to guess.

The OS X implementation of GPG is pretty swish. There's a very good walk-through of the set-up process, and how to use it, as well as links to required (free) software here: Configuring GnuPG (Mac OS X). You may want to (and probably should, unless you have a good reason), skip the "Key Generation" step, and simply use the "GPG Keychain Access" program – discussed in the article – to generate one for you. The graphical step-by-step interface for doing so is quite friendly (especially compared to the terminal).

Once you're sorted out with a key-pair, and perhaps have uploaded your public key on a server (which is doable through the "GPG Keychain Access" app) or shared it with your friends, then you can simply start using the power of PGP. For files, there's a great little app called GPGFileTool which is – surprisingly – not discussed in the Zeitform article. It has a welcoming graphical user interface, and you need do little more than drag and drop the file you wish to encrypt/decrypt/sign/validate onto the program icon in your dock, and follow the instructions. Pretty easy, eh?
Email security is just a few steps away as well, with the GPG plugins available for, and other common mail clients. I use the one, and it's quite simple and straightforward. An extra menu bar appears above all mail messages, offering you – through the use of checkboxes – to encrypt and/or sign your outgoing messages. It will decrypt incoming messages on-the-fly, simply prompting your for your pass-phrase (which can be stored in the Mac OS X keychain, although I wouldn't risk it). Very simply stuff, and all the details you know are in the Zeitform article.

I hope this blog post has been of some use to someone out there. The use of this is quite evident on an every day basis: when sending sensitive information, bank details or simply contact info you wouldn't want someone other than the recipient of the message to stumble upon, PGP's the thing to use. And thankfully, the tools available for OS X make that possible without having to use the command-line-interface even once, making the whole enterprise approachable to the slightly-tech-illiterate amongst us (myself included).

On Japanese mosquitoes

The following may come across as no surprise for anyone who hasn't had their rationality glands removed, but for some crazy reason, I think that – deep down – I expected Japanese mosquitoes would show some deference or consideration for a crazy gaijin who left his window open during a hot Tokyo night. But no, instead, those mosquitoes (or whatever the hell spent the night trying to get a piece of me) chose to sting the #*%&ing hell out of me all night long. What happened to all the goodwill, discretion and politeness one comes to expect here? On the other hand, maybe they were crazy radioactive mosquitoes or some magical bug of sorts (this is Japan, after all... I figure the odds are pretty good in my favour). Maybe I'll have cool superpowers by tomorrow. In the meantime, all I've got a damn itchy back/arm/face/argh/everything!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Views from Tokyo Part IV

On Saturday, I went for a stroll in the area around Ueno and Asakusa. It's quite an enjoyable part of Tokyo, with quite a few temples and a huge park, as well as more love hotels than you can shake a stick at (religion, nature and sex, huh? Only in Japan...). Here are a few pictures of it all, although I've got more views of the area in the form of footage. When (and if) I make it back to France, I'll compile all my Tokyo footage into one film, reduce it to a more server-friendly size, and upload it here. In the meantime, photos...

I love this building. It literally seems like they built the staircase and added the apartments as an afterthought.

A statue near Asakusa. Don't ask who it represents or why it has a red cloth... I'm not that interested in Buddhism, and couldn't really be asked to find out.

The main gate to the main shrine in Asakusa. Cultural, eh? I've been here before, about five years ago. Wow... time flies.

A tower-thingy in Asakusa. I'm going to refrain from further commentary until I have something vaguely interesting to say.

Aaah, your leafy escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the metropolis: Ueno-koen park.

Urban contrasts: a small shrine in Ueno-koen sits surrounded by an enormous lake, framed by the buildings and Tokyo University, seen in the distance.

A closer view at that shrine...

A salad field? No, that's actually one big-ass lake. Very refreshing, in the summer heat.

There's probably some story behind this stone, but I don't know it. Right next to the small shrine in the pictures above.

A more luminous shot of that stone.

The famous main auditorium of equally famous University of Tokyo. I'm not quite sure the whole place was open to visitors, so I sort of blagged my way in by simply entering through the main gate, looking like I knew what I was doing. Gaijin-license...

Another shot at this building. It's a shame that I didn't have time to take pictures of the other, more pleasantly designed (but less famous) buildings, but they're all on the video footage.