Thursday, January 31, 2008

Welcome Home

When I got back from Japan, the first question a lot of co-workers and friends asked was "so what do you miss most about Japan." My usual response was to chuckle and say "the vending machines." Now, there's some truth to that statement, but really, I miss a whole lot. Many of those things are things I miss about living in Germany as well, but one unique thing seems interesting to write about right now.

First though, I feel like clarifying the vending machine remark; vending machines are ubiquitous throughout Japan. A gaijin Lyle and I hung out with at one point mentioned a rumor that Tokyo has more vending machines than all of the US. This is a number I doubt, but from what I saw it wasn't that far-fetched. It seemed like one couldn't go more than 5 feet without running into a set of vending machines. It took smaller towns like Kurabuchi to get down to the frequency of vending machines I'd see in larger US cities.

So why would I miss this? Two reasons. First, the smallest bill in Yen is 1000, which is roughly $10. That means that 100 and 500 Yen ($1-$5) come in coin form. This makes Japanese vending machines a million times easier to use than US ones, where I rarely have the right combination of bills and change to get a $1.25 soda. The second reason is selection; the vast majority of vending machines were for drinks (the rest were cigarettes and a few had beer; I never saw any of the more... creative ones people claim exist), but unlike the US those weren't limited to bottled water and soda. There was often tea, vitamin drinks, and coffee, not to mention an assortment of soft drinks that were more varied than anything in the US (how I miss CC Lemon). Many of the machines had milk tea and cafe au lait, both of which often had both cold and warm versions. The latter was very nice in the cold weather.

What is it I miss right now? Kotatsu. While they aren't nearly as necessary in American homes as they were in Japanese homes, I really wish I had one in my apartment. Why? My apartment's heating is probably one of my biggest complaints about it. It has two small electric heating elements in the living room/kitchen space, which is two stories high thanks to a loft above the kitchen, and thus not kept warm very well by the two lame heaters. Lyle's kerosine heater did a better job than these do. |f I need a lame electric heater, I think I'd be much happier and better served by one in a table with a thick blanket than by what I have now.

I think there might be a little more to it than that though; most of the kotatsu I saw were fairly small (which makes sense given the size of most Japanese homes), so when eating dinner with a group of people, it felt a lot more social than a dinner at someone else's house here in the States (though I suppose the fact that we ate sukiyaki when we ate at one of Lyle's co-worker's house didn't hurt that either). I think I'd almost go so far as to say I prefer the smaller houses I saw; if it weren't for the poor heating, I'd love to find a house like Lyle's around here. Well, I would if housing prices here weren't lame.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mystery Hunt

Two weeks ago I went to Boston to participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I've been relatively active in a lot of the Microsoft-run puzzle events (between helping run the intern events and playing in the last two Puzzle Hunts), so when someone I knew from various puzzle-related stuff at work asked if I wanted to join, I jumped at the chance.

All in all, I'm glad I went, but I think I prefer the local hunts. Truthfully, I probably could have worked with the remote team (i.e., folks who didn't fly out to Boston) and noticed very little difference. There were some aspects of the hunt that made the event feel a little amateur; answers were phoned in to a human with no leeway on answers, some of which could be very vague (e.g., one had us translate Chinese to English, which proved to be very ambiguous and frustrating). While this isn't necessarily dissimilar to how things are done in other events, I like to think that if a team called the people running the event and could explain the puzzle, they'd get the answer if there was a translation error.

I probably could complain more, but on reflection, there's always a lot to complain about after a Hunt; some puzzles simply don't sync with everyone, and even after hearing the answer it can be natural to think "that person is crazy."

As I said though, I'm glad I went. I've been thinking more and more that I'd like to travel more, so while I spent most of the time in either a hotel room or a classroom, I'm glad I got out of the state. I suppose I rode the subway as well, which only serves to remind me how much I hate the lack of decent public transit around Puget Sound.

And all of this reminds me that I need to book another weekend flight here pretty soon.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Traveling Home

I plan on coming back and posting pictures and stories about my trip to visit Lyle in Japan, but as I'm really tired from the fight back, I though I'd post a few anecdotes worth remembering:

  • My original itinerary involved flying to SFO, chilling out in San Francisco for an our, and then flying to Seattle. Thankfully, when I got to Narita Airport, the first thing they asked when I checked in was "we overbooked the SFO flight; is a direct flight OK?"

    The answer is an obvious "absolutely." While this would potentially cause issues for my ride (since I was coming in two hours early, now at the wee hours of 8am), I appreciate any opportunity to skip connections.

  • When I finally did board the plane, they upped me to business class. This was incredibly awesome, as it meant I had tons of leg room (too much, actually), awesome food, and an otherwise comfortable 8 hour flight across the pacific. The flight included an awesome view of the sunset over Mt. Fuji, which is great, because the weather in Tokyo was always so bad that I could never see the thing.

  • As comfortable as the flight was, I still couldn't sleep. So now I have to relive Saturday as though I never slept Friday night. I've got some errands to run (no food left) and some other things I'd like to do, but I really don't think I should drive. Oh well.

I'll try to get photos up quickly (or at least start getting some up) and posting impressions. I have the feeling that Lyle is the only one who reads this though so maybe I can take my time since he experienced pretty much everything I did first hand.

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