Azumanga Daioh Vol 3 : 3 of 5

This great series continues to be fun to watch - it's like a breath of fresh air sometimes! The simple lives of these high school girls are cute and heartwarming, and in this volume, they start their second year. There's a new girl in class (who we met at last year's sports festival), and she's determined to be a rival for Sakaki (and tries to compete with her on the goofiest things!). Speaking of Sakaki, there's plenty more about her and her cat obsession, plus a whole episode devoted to Chiyo-chan, following her during an entire day, from waking up until bedtime. It seems like some things will happen year after year, such as the summer trip to Chiyo-chan's beach house, and during this trip, one of their teachers gets pretty drunk and ends up talking about adult subjects with the girls! There's a pretty funny joke in one episode about "Blue 3" (Bruce Lee), spoken by Osaka, of course (she's the spaced out girl!). This show is silly, cute, and touching at the same time - I'm really looking forward to the next action-packed volume (that's a little joke!). I still haven't figured out what the theme song is about - it's called Fancy Hearing Cake, and has lines like "Everyday the fluffy temptation of wheat!" Who cares? It's fun to sing!


Valiant : 3 of 5

Staying true to my love of animation, I try to see every animated feature at the theater, so my pal Melinda and I went to see this new Disney-distributed film (produced by Vanguard Animation in the UK). I wasn't really sure what to expect, since I had read some mixed reviews, but I was pleasantly surprised! Not only was the story funny and exciting, but the animation was really fantastic! I wasn't too excited about the character design of the pigeons, but I soon got used to it, especially after seeing the cute doves in the hilarious "newsreel" at the start of the film. I was really impressed by the lighting in several scenes - every now and then there would be an outdoor scene that just felt exactly right, especially the depth of field effect when our heroes are walking through a French vineyard. The female mouse called Charles De Girl was absolutely perfect - I thought she was the funniest character! The voice talent was pretty good, all with the appropriate British accents, of course - Ewan McGregor has such a good voice for animation (though I was surprised he was in another feature so soon after Robots). Valiant definitely won't go down in history as an animation classic, but it's a good time at the theater, and I'm glad Disney chose to distribute it! I hope to see more from Vanguard in the future.

Japan Journal 2005

I hope everyone enjoyed reading my latest Japan Journal as much as I enjoyed writing it! I love to take the time to record my memories, because in the months and years ahead I'll be glad I did when I go back to read about my fun adventures. If you've discovered this page via a search engine, here's some quick info as well as links to each day's post and Flickr set. Enjoy!

WEBmikey in Japan
August 12-21, 2005
Visiting Osaka, Kyoto, Yagi, Tokushima, Nara, & Ikeda
Experiencing Awa Odori, hanabi, sento, karaoke

Japan pals photos
Days 1-2 | View photos
Day 3 | View photos
Days 4-5 | View photos
Day 6 | View photos
Day 7 | View photos
Days 8-9 | View photos


Japan 2005: Days 8-9

After waking up and having a nice breakfast of fresh fruit, Kumiko had to run off to school - her holiday was over. Matt and I rode the bikes to their garden again for some quick watering. It was still fun to ride, although it was a little scarier this time. Since we went a little later in the morning, there was additional traffic to surprise me - I still really enjoyed the ride, though!

After a quick rest and a change of clothes, Matt and I rode the train to Kobe to explore the city and take pictures. Kobe was really nice, with lots of people going about their business and tall buildings to look at with cool pedestrian walkways. The weather was fantastic, so I really enjoyed just walking through the city. I wanted to do some shopping for a few more things on my wish list, so we wandered through a big department store, and eventually down a nice shopping street that turned out to be a success! First we found a nice Japanese wind chime like I was looking for (and Matt handled asking the clerk if we could buy the display model!), and then we went to two fun CD shops (to buy some songs I had written down after watching the videos). The first store was kind of difficult, since everything is alphabetized differently in Japanese (I pretty much understand how it works, but this store was still confusing). They had some good prices on some used CDs, though, and later when we went to a much bigger, modern CD store, I was able to find nearly everything I wanted!

We stopped at a nice little place for lunch, and I had zaru soba (cold soba noodles) and Matt had udon, and then we were ready for some serious walking. Matt needed to take photos in a particular Kobe neighborhood to enter a photography contest, so off we went. On the way we found a really wonderful temple that just popped up out of nowhere. It had a great inner courtyard with a pond and waterfall, and I was amazed at how a temple can provide such a peaceful place in the middle of a busy city. We made it to our destination, and this part of Kobe was all steep narrow streets with lots of tourist shops and restaurants - it kind of reminded me of San Francisco. There was a kind of wedding expo going on, so we saw lots of places advertising photos, venues, and so on. There wasn't too much to inspire Matt's photography, but we had a good time together and enjoyed the exercise! We were both pretty sleepy on the train home, and we had a nice rest before heading out to dinner.

I hadn't had tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) yet on this trip, so Kumiko found a good tonkatsu restaurant for our dinner. Matt and I met her at Umeda (after her school day), and Bubu was there, too. After we got to the restaurant and got settled, Bubu had a gift for me! I received three excellent handkerchiefs with beautiful patterns on them - they were really nice, and I couldn't thank her enough. Dinner was really delicious (and filling), and Matt and I had a great time reading the English menu, which contained some of the funniest translations ever, including "The pork cutlet whose leaf of cheese was pinched." After dinner we said goodbye to Bubu and went back to Matt & Kumiko's apartment where I did all of my final packing (which was interesting after all that shopping!),watched cartoons and drank whisky. I said goodbye to Kumiko before I went to bed, since she had to be off to school again early in the morning.

On my last morning in Japan for this trip, Matt made me a great egg and Spam breakfast, which we ate while watching more music videos. Later we walked to Kumiko's parents place so I could say goodbye, and Kumiko's mom had a nice lunch (udon and an unagi dish) waiting for me. She also had a gift for me - a fantastic table runner (which looks wonderful in my house)! After eating, Matt and I walked back home to get all of my things, and soon Kumiko's parents arrived to drive us to the bus station. It was sad to say goodbye to Otousan and Okaasan, and especially to Matt, who had been such an amazing and generous host and guide! I waved goodbye to everyone from the bus, and only 20 hours later, I was home in Austin, as excited as ever about Japanese language and culture.

View photos: Day 8


Japan 2005: Day 7

After last night's dinner, it was time for a nice lazy morning (at least for me), so I relaxed on the couch for most of the morning, drinking coffee and watching music videos. The music videos in Japan are so entertaining to me - I love all the music, and the production quality of the videos is so great! I wrote down a few artists and songs to go shopping for later, and Matt & Kumiko went off on the bikes to water the garden again. When they got home, Matt cooked up a couple of dishes for the future (including a really yummy goya, egg, and tofu dish that we had for late breakfast), and Kumiko started preparing for her return to school (real life was creeping around the corner).

Soon we left for a short train ride to Ikeda for the day's activity - hiking up Satsukiyama, a small mountain with a great view of the city. It was a really sunny day with almost no clouds, but the heat felt good and we had water to drink! The walk through the Ikeda neighborhoods was fun, and we saw a nice playground with a giant slide filled with energetic kids. We started making the hike, each set of stairs followed by another set, but soon we were at the top and enjoying the view. I thought it was cool to be in the same place where Matt had taken some of my favorite photos - it was amazing to see how he could capture things with such an artful eye! We found a little bench area and rested awhile, listening to someone practicing shakuhachi (Japanese flute) - he was really terrible, but definitely determined to get better! There were lots of grasshoppers to watch, too. On the way back to the train station, we saw Ikeda Castle, which is pretty underwhelming since it's so small. We left Kumiko so she could run errands, and Matt and I went back to the apartment to relax.

That evening we met Kumiko and her nice friend Bubu (a nickname) at Umeda station so we could go to the Hankyu beer garden, on top of one of the buildings in downtown Osaka. For one price it was all you can eat (and drink!) until closing time, and there were plenty of folks already there enjoying themselves and the view of the city - we watched the moon rising behind the Hep Five ferris wheel, which I rode on my first trip to Japan five years ago. Soon we were joined by Keichi, fun and full of energy, and we all ate and drink and talked about jobs (I was fascinated that she used to work with Power Rangers live shows). After a little more beer, we were all taking pictures of ourselves making goofy faces and poses, which was so much fun! Soon we had another guest, Keichi's friend Akiko, and I had a great time talking to all these people - speaking just a little bit of Japanese got a great reaction out of everyone, so I was enjoying the attention!

At 9:00 PM, the beer garden was closing, so Matt was nice enough to suggest my secret desire - to go sing karaoke! We walked to a really lively karaoke place, packed with people and full of life. For those who don't know, karaoke in Japan really isn't a bar experience as it is in America, but instead groups of friends gather in a personal room to sing (as well as order food and drinks). Soon we had our room (and were joined by yet another friend, Ueda) and started flipping through the telephone book-sized catalogs of songs (literally thousands to choose from!), and Matt kicked it off with an awesome rendition of Sister Christian (which he sang on his last big night in Austin before moving to Japan). Everyone sang great songs, including lots of American pop hits, as well as some Japanese songs, of course. The group knew that I was an anime fan, so they found the Gatchaman theme song, which was a ton of fun. The big moment was when Kumiko found the Kikaida theme song, which I have memorized in Japanese (at least the first verse), and I kind of went crazy when it came on, jumped up in front of everyone, and sang it out! I'm sure I was pretty hilarious, but the gals seemed to enjoy it, so it was a dream come true. An hour and a half later our time was up, so we finished with a Beatles medley and said goodbye. It was an incredibly fun evening!

View photos: Day 7

Matt has really started kicking on his journal! Read it now!


Japan 2005: Day 6

We woke up early to get ready for our day in Nara, and Kumiko's dad met us to drive us to a different train station that made it easier to get to where we needed to go. I hadn't seen Otousan (father) since Matt & Kumiko's wedding in Hawaii, so it was great to see him again! Kumiko said he was looking forward to our big dinner that evening, and he made some jokes in the car, calling me "Speaker" (rather than "Mike" for microphone). At the station we bought some breakfast for the trip - more yummy sandwiches. I got ebikatsu, which is a kind battered shrimp patty, and we ate them on the train. We arrived in Nara and left the station, and in just a few minutes I was seeing real live deer all over the place! I knew that Nara had some kind of deer park, but I never expected there to be so many walking right among all the people! Nara is the ancient capital of Japan, and the emperor kept pet deer - these deer are the descendants of that herd, so they are completely tame and used to people. You can walk right up to a big buck and pet him and even feel his antlers! There are plenty of stands selling "deer crackers" for you to buy and feed them, right out of your hand, which I did later in the day.

We made the short walk to Todaji, the temple housing the Daibutsu (giant Buddha), passing through huge gates and seeing many more deer. The temple itself is truly amazing - it's actually the largest wooden structure in the world! We all lit incense sticks before entering, and then soon we walked up the steps and were looking at the Daibutsu, which is really magnificent. It really is a giant, which is difficult to show in photos, but one of the columns in the temple has a hole cut into it which is the same size as the Buddha's nostril, and children can crawl through it, which gives you some perspective. There are several other large statues in the temple, and you can walk all the way around and marvel at the giant pillars and amazing craftsmanship. Of course, there are some souvenir stands inside, too, which sell charms and things, and we all bought something. After a relaxing time sitting on the temple steps, we started to walk back to the station.

I decided I had to get some deer crackers, and as soon as I bought them the deer came running! I could barely get the paper off the crackers before I was surrounded by deer, and soon some of them were taking little nips at my butt just to get my attention (nothing serious, but shocking)! I just kept walking as fast as I could and handing them crackers, and suddenly I was out of food and the deer calmed down quickly. After feeding the deer, it was time to feed ourselves, so we walked to a nearby Mos Burger for lunch. Mos Burger is probably the best fast food chain in the world - everything tastes fresh and yummy! (By the way, "mos" sounds funny, but it just stands for Mountains, Ocean, Sky.) I had the spicy cheeseburger, and it was so delicious! I was also amused by the signs everywhere with their slogan, "Hamburger is my life" - it was a great lunch. Soon we were back at Matt & Kumiko's apartment, resting to prepare for the dinner of a lifetime.

That evening we made the short walk to Kumiko's parents' wonderful apartment to enjoy a huge meal, expertly prepared by Okaasan (mother)! Every dish was amazing, and there were so many of them (I didn't even get pictures of them all)! We had broccoli shrimp salad, salmon with peppers, beef wrapped in lettuce, fried daikon radish (whoops, actually rinkon - lotus root!) with pork (these might have been my favorite), a seaweed salad, spinach, and sushi! Of course, there was beer with dinner, plus Nihonshu (what we call sake), and then Otousan broke out the expensive bottle of whisky! I presented my gifts to them, and they enjoyed looking at some pictures of Texas in the photo books. It was so nice to eat and drink and speak Japanese (though I made several mistakes, which I blame on the booze!), and Otousan was having a great time posing for the camera and fooling me with magic tricks. We also looked at family photos, and I liked seeing Kumiko and Kazuomi as kids. After all that food and fun, it was time to go home - I'm sure it took me at least three seconds to fall asleep.

View photos: Day 6


The Cat Returns : 5 of 5

Amazing! I bought this DVD ages ago, when it was released in the last wave of Disney-dubbed Studio Ghibli anime classics, but most of the previews made it seem kind of boring, like it was the least Miyazaki-like of these movies. I finally watched it, and wow, I was so wrong! The Cat Returns is simply spectacular in its creativity, and I enjoyed it so much that I think it's now my second favorite Ghibli film (after my beloved Kiki's Delivery Service!). The story is about a schoolgirl named Haru, who saves a cat from being run-over by a truck. It turns out the cat is the prince of the Kingdom of Cats, and a huge processional of kitties arrives at night to thank her and shower her with gifts - which include her actually becoming a cat and marrying the prince! She is helped by the Baron, who is actually a sophisticated (with top hat and cane) cat figurine come to life, along with a crow and a fat cat, too. This all sounds crazy in a brief synopsis, but it's actually a fantastic story, where Haru has to learn to believe in herself and enjoy the gift of life. There are many, many exciting moments that really had me on the edge of my seat, and the animation is first class! There are so many details and things in motion in the backgrounds - the kind of attention missing in most modern hand-drawn animation. The Baron and some of the other characters originally appeared in the film Whispers of the Heart, so this is kind of a sequel, but it definitely stands on its own. I also really loved the closing theme song, with its happy and peaceful lyrics, mostly accompanied by ukulele. This is definitely a movie that I'll be watching again and again!

Sorry for the short break in the Japan Journal! Stay tuned for more adventures tomorrow!


Japan 2005: Days 4-5

The next morning, soon after we woke up we heard Megumi and Nozomi running around the house, sometimes sneaking upstairs to look in our room. We had a fantastic breakfast of sandwich makings (sandwiches seem to be a common breakfast in Japan), yogurt with honey, and later some delicious watermelon! I got to spend more time with my new young friends, too. When Megumi heard me sing some of the Japanese children's song Tulip, she went to the piano to play it - she was really skilled, and played a few other difficult songs, too. I got to make more paper boats, and then Nozomi asked me to draw with her. She made a sketch on one side of the paper, and I made my own version on the other side. This moment was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, just enjoying drawing with a happy child and speaking simple Japanese! We said goodbye to the Onishis, and it was sad to leave little Nozomi on the porch making pouty faces.

While we were in Tokushima, we found out that one of Kumiko's friends had a baby just a few days ago, so we went to a department store to buy a gift. After that we visited a kind of Tokushima visitors center, with a giant gift shop of Awa Odori items, and we rode the Bizan rope way, which is a suspended cable ride up Tokushima's largest mountain. At the top the view was wonderful, and we were amazed by all of the tombo (dragonflies) flying around. After a quick drink in the snack bar, we left Bizan and went to the hospital to meet the new baby, who was adorable. There were other visitors there, and it was strange to be in a room with lots of Japanese mothers talking about baby care (including breast massage)! One of the visitors was nice enough to give us a ride to a ramen place, so we could eat Tokushima ramen (which is different because of the soup broth and the beef that's used) - it was delicious! Soon we were on the bus back to Osaka, and our travels were over.

The next morning, Matt & Kumiko needed to water their garden (in an area they rent from the city), and I wanted to go see the farming in action. This meant I had to ride Kumiko's bike, which was a little scary (since I'm not used to riding on streets with cars and pedestrians), but tons of fun! It was so cool to be able to cover so much ground in only a ten-minute ride, and we got to pass sights like a fun water park filled with kids. At the garden, Matt picked tons of okra and watered everything, while I caught my breath and took pictures (of course). We rode home to have breakfast, and Kumiko bought some great treats from the bakery, including pastries of Pikachu and Anpanman! After breakfast, Matt and I went to Umeda station for some serious shopping - I bought toys, CDs, books, and all kinds of things for myself and my pals back home. We had a small beef-bowl lunch (though it was actually pork) to end our shopping day.

That evening we met up with Kumiko's friend Tabata, and she went with us to go airplane watching! Itami airport is walking distance from Matt & Kumiko's apartment, and there's a spot where you can gather right next to the fence by a major runway. When the huge planes come in to land, they fly right over your head, and the wind and sound is so exciting! There were other people there watching, including photographers, and we had fun screaming for each 747! Later we went to Gyu Kaku (a favorite restaurant from my last trip) for yakiniku, which is thinly-sliced beef that you cook yourself on a grill right in the middle of the table. At the start of the meal, I got to play janken-pon (rock, paper, scissors) with the waiter, and I won a free dessert! All of the food was wonderful, and the conversation with Tabata was great, because she knew about lots of the same anime and manga that I enjoy. It was fun to speak some Japanese and talk to a fellow otaku! We said good bye to Tabata and went home for a little TV and whiskey, ready for our day in Nara in the morning.

View photos: Days 4-5


Japan 2005: Day 3

I woke up in Kazuomi's house in Kyoto listening to the sounds of cicadas and trains passing, just like summer in Japan should sound. Chiaki made us all a nice breakfast of eggs, ham, bread, and a small salad, and I realized that I can't cut food with hashi (chopsticks) very well! Everyone walked to the station, including Daichi, and we said good bye and rode back to Osaka for some quick shopping before we had to catch the bus to Tokushima. I had fun looking at video games in Yodobashi department store, plus all of the fantastic toys in Kiddie Land. After we bought some onigiri (Matt picked out some great ones for me) for lunch, we hopped on the bus. I sat next to a girl who did math homework for the entire trip! There were lots of nice views during the drive, including passing through Naruto, home of whirlpools. The huge suspension bridges to get to Shikoku were amazing, too!

At Tokushima station, we met Keiko, who is the sister of one of Kumiko's high school friends. She and her husband drove us to their parents' home, where we were staying the night. During the drive it was fun to talk to Keiko, because she was so amazed that I knew some Japanese (it turns out that everyone is amazed if you know a little Japanese, but that's OK because it made me feel special!). At the Onishi's home, I met the mother (father was at work), plus Keiko's children - Megumi (8 years old) and Nozomi (4 years old). Both girls were so cute and full of fun, jumping around and making cat sounds (Nyan nyan in Japan!). While we waited for an unexpected meal to be finished, we walked around the nearby fields and farm land, which was really beautiful. I provided some entertainment by talking about the "fields of gohan" (gohan means cooked rice, so I should have said kome!), and had fun hopping on one foot with Nozomi. Back at the house, I gave gifts to the mother, and the tissue paper wrapping became instant toys for the girls. I showed them how to make paper hune (boats) which I learned as a little boy from Curious George Rides a Bike, and that seemed to be a big hit. The meal was amazing, including shabu-shabu salad, fish, gyoza, and homemade bread!

After dinner we went to Awa Odori, our reason for visiting Tokushima! As we got to the performance area bleachers, I was shocked to find out that Kumiko got us front-row seats! The festival was unbelievable - I've often read about how much Matt enjoys it, and now I know why. Awa Odori is definitely one of the most uplifting and wonderful things you can experience in Japan! Teams of performers parade down the street, made of groups of women in beautiful costumes dancing in geta (wooden shoes), energetic men swinging lanterns, and groups of musicians playing drums, flutes, and shamisen. Everyone uses the same traditional tune and dance steps (along with an infectious chant), but the different teams add their own touches to shine above the rest. Lots of the teams had groups of children, all cute as could be and trying their best to wow the crowd. It was just moving to see everyone so happy and proud of their culture! After the performance, we all joined in the dance for a bit (after watching for two hours you simply have to!), and then walked around the city. Everywhere you looked it was absolutely packed with people enjoying life, drinking beer and looking spectacular in yukata.

Eventually we had to go home, where we met father Onishi and sat around talking and snacking (and I soon realized that it's hard to concentrate on Japanese when you're tired). While I waited for my turn in the shower, I talked with Keiko and mother Onishi some more, mostly about music and language. After I finally figured out the katakana for shampoo, I finished my shower and sat on the balcony with Matt & Kumiko. It was so dark in the country that we saw many shooting stars, marking the end of another beautiful day.

View photos: Day 3

For Matt & Kumiko's thoughts on the trip, be sure to read Moon Station Foxtrot and Kumiko's blog (mostly in Japanese)!


Japan 2005: Days 1 & 2

The first day of my trip was a Friday, and of course, it was filled with mostly traveling. After flying to Los Angeles, I had to kill five hours in the international terminal, so I watched a couple episodes of Star Trek on my Palm and watched the boarding of a really busy flight to Tokyo. The boarding for the Osaka flight was much easier, and the long flight passed by pretty quickly, thanks to free beer and the Disney Channel in Japanese! Matt was waiting for me at the airport, and we rode the bus together, chatting our way to Osaka station, where we caught a train to Sone, the station by Matt & Kumiko's apartment. We stopped to buy some drinks for later on the walk back to his place, where we were greeted by Kumiko and an awesome welcoming dinner! We had curry, salad, edemame, and a yummy peach dessert! I gave them some goofy presents (toys) that I had brought, and we had fun playing with them and watching TV before bedtime.

The next morning I woke up excited about being in Japan, and packed some things and wrapped gifts for our upcoming two days of travel. We had an excellent French toast breakfast, along with grapes & yogurt plus a salad - I was spoiled already! We decided to spend the day in Kyoto, mostly at the train station, which is a huge architectural marvel full of fun things to do. First we shopped at the Tezuka store (I'm drinking coffee from a new Astro Boy mug as I type), and then we went to a cool exhibit of Anpanman art that was showing (Anpanman is a cute cartoon character who has been around forever, and everyone knows and loves him). The exhibit was packed, but the art was really fun! Next we went to fulfill a dream of mine - to eat a big fancy parfait in Japan (since I always see them in anime!). We checked out the selection and finally decided - I had the strawberry and Matt had the blueberry. Delicious! Just outside the station was a rather large temple, which we walked around and inside. It was so nice to sit on the steps with our shoes off and relax - that's the best part about temples that suddenly appear in the middle of a busy city.

Back at the station, we boarded a train to Yagi, a small town outside of Kyoto, to see my first hanabi (fireworks) festival! When we got to Yagi, we met up with Kumiko's brother Kazuomi, his wife Chiaki, and their cute son Daichi. It was so much fun to walk through the festival crowds, full of girls wearing yukata (summer kimono), and smelling all the great food. We found a spot by the river, then Matt and I went back to the stalls for some food and beer. I ate yakisoba while we watched a boat place hundreds of floating lanterns in the river, and it was lots of fun to play with Daichi! Just about anything could entertain him - after eating some shaved ice he started singing "Budou aji" (grape flavor) over and over again. The fireworks were amazing, with tons of huge displays that just kept coming for nearly two hours! Afterwards the walk back to the station was tremendously crowded, but it was still fun to be among a festive crowd.

Somehow the decision was made that we would all go to a sento (public bath) - this was definitely not my idea! I was terrified about being naked in front of strangers, but also kind of excited about experiencing another staple of Japanese culture! The sento was packed with folks at nearly midnight, all just enjoying each other's company and getting clean. The boys said goodbye to the girls, and then it was time for the locker room, where I just did what I had to do! Next were little bathing stations with soap and shampoo, and after that there were several "pools" to choose from (hot, cold, whirlpool), as well as a cool outdoor bath with rocks and waterfalls. It was actually really nice, and I'm so glad (and proud) I did it! Kazuomi was really nice about keeping me calm, too. Later that evening, I gave gifts to the family (plus finger-puppets for Daichi), then quickly fell asleep, happy to have experienced so much right away!

View photos: Days 1 & 2


Back from Japan

Welcome back to your regular daily WEBmikey postings! I got back from Japan late last night, and I've spent all day unpacking, playing with new toys, watching video I shot on the trip, and sorting through the over 1,000 photos I took! I've never had that many pictures to go through before - it's really fun, but definitely takes time. This trip was really, really amazing and full of tons of unique experiences! It was great to be able to speak Japanese well enough to communicate a little, and even just being able to read signs and things made this trip come to life a little more than in the past. Matt & Kumiko totally outdid themselves by planning all of our adventures, cooking for me, and putting up with my thousands of questions! (I can never thank them enough!) While I was on the trip, I took notes each day to remember all of the little details, and I'm going to use them to write another Japan Journal (similar to my 2000 trip and 2003 trip). I'll try to post a full Japan day almost every day until I finish, along with Flickr sets to go along. To kick things off, here's a set covering the entire trip of all the photos of my pals (it's a long set, but I started with over 250 pictures, and this was as small as I could get it!).

View photos: Japan pals


More tanoshii experiences, almost owari

My amazing time in Japan is ending quickly, but this trip has been full of so many memorable experiences! Here's a few more highlights that you can expect me to describe in more detail in the near future:
  • I got to ride bicycles with Matt to his city garden plot, which was so much fun! It felt very Japanese to ride bikes along the streets and past other pedestrians.
  • Kumiko's parents prepared the most amazing meal ever created, and it was wonderful to practice my Japanese and enjoy the food (as well as the beer, sake, and whiskey!).
  • Visiting Nara was incredible, not only for the Daibutsu (Giant Buddha), but also for the wild deer wandering among the tourists!
  • Last night was a dream come true, singing karaoke with lots of Kumiko's wonderful friends. Speaking Japanese with them was so encouraging, too!


Hanabi, matsuri, and sento?!

I'm back at Matt & Kumiko's after two jam-packed days of traveling and amazing experiences! I'm really looking forward to writing about these in full detail (plus finding the best of all the pictures I'm taking - over 500 so far!), but here's a quick list for now.
  • I saw my first Japanese fireworks, and it was incredible! The festival atmosphere was so much fun, and it was great spending time with Kumiko's brother and his family (especially their super-cute son Daichi).
  • Believe it or not, I actually survived my first sento (public bath) experience! I'm sure I will never be in another room with more naked people in my lifetime. It was actually really wonderful and such a great Japanese thing to do!
  • We went to Tokushima for the Awa Odori festival, which was too magical for words - I will definitely try to do this justice in a long description next week!


Nihon ni imasu!

Hello from Japan! My long flight by myself was nothing to worry about - the time went by fairly quickly, and I had a lot of fun watching the Disney Channel in Japanese on the plane. Last night Matt met me at the airport and traveling back to his place was lots of fun, just seeing the sites and so many cool people, and then we had a great curry dinner that Kumiko made (there will be plenty of food pictures posted when I get home). I've just finished having a wonderful breakfast - Kumiko made us French toast, grapes and yogurt, plus a salad, and it was a delicious. Today we're heading to Kyoto, seeing fireworks tonight, and then on to Tokushima tomorrow, so maybe I'll post again in a few days. Everything is fun - I could just spend all day watching TV here and be satisfied!


Ashita Nihon e ikimasu!

I can't believe I'm leaving for Japan tomorrow! I kept looking at the world clock on my Palm all day, thinking "I should be in bed now" or "It's time for breakfast!" I don't think the time switch will affect me much, though - during my last trip, the only problem was I kept waking up super early, but then it's nice to just lie around in bed (or futon, I should say). This trip is going to be full of fun experiences, but most of all I'm looking forward to seeing my pals Matt & Kumiko! And of course, practicing my Japanese! Hopefully there will be a post or two during next week, and maybe some photos on Flickr from Matt's cameraphone, so stay tuned!

Kikaida Vol 4 : 3 of 5

I'm still enjoying this awesomely goofy series, and this DVD was filled with lots of new monsters (the DARK Destructoids, of course). Rogue Jellyfish is the first female destructoid, and the mini poison jellyfish that she commands are really funny looking when they hop around in the air! King Crab Maroon is pretty cool looking, but his main weapon is shooting a stream of bubble bath suds (well, at least it paralyzes what it touches). Jiro has a few interesting moves in these episodes - sometimes he uses his famous red guitar as a club and bashes his robot enemies with it! That can't be good for the instrument, can it? I always enjoy seeing him appear out of nowhere playing his sad guitar. He's always hundreds of yards away somewhere, usually on a mountain or a bridge, but in one episode of this set, he shows up perched on the very top of a huge tree - he looks like a Christmas tree topper! All silliness aside, I do actually enjoy this show, and it's fun seeing Mistuko deal with her feelings for Jiro. Will she ever tell him how she feels? This DVD also includes a nice interview with Ban Daisuke, who played Jiro almost 30 years ago. Well, that's twenty episodes down, and a ton more to go!


Chieco Kawabe / Brilliance : 4 of 5

I read about this CD in Newtype USA, and I was intrigued since Chieco played Usagi's school pal Naru in Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (the live-action series I enjoyed so much). I hardly ever buy a CD without hearing a sample, but I decided to go ahead and order it anyway, since I hadn't ordered from YesAsia in awhile, and she's such a cutie that I couldn't resist. I'm really glad I did, because I love this CD! Her music is really pop, but not so sugary-sweet like a lot of Japanese pop. The stand-out hit track, Be Your Girl, unfortunately is a pretty blatant rip-off of Hilary Duff's So Yesterday, but I still think it's an awesome song. The production and instrumentation is exactly what you would expect for a pop album (it sounds very Radio Disney to me, actually), and Chieco's voice is great - loud when it needs to be, cute and pure (with good pitch, too). Some other favorite tracks are I Can't Wait (with it's funny "bum bum bum" interlude), and Shining, which has some totally bopping dance rhythms. I also love the last track (the title is kanji, so I only know it starts with "Hoshi ni", something about a star), which has beautiful melody and vocals (Chieco sings her own background tracks, too). I'm totally impressed, and her gorgeous face is mesmerizing as a bonus. I don't know what's up with the spelling of her name, since it should be Chieko, but I guess she's just being cool!


In the Tiki-Tiki-Tiki...

As you may remember, I've been pretty determined to get lots of the amazing new collectibles being produced for Disneyland's 50th anniversary (such as my beloved Monorail replica)! Disney Direct has been releasing new waves of items every month or so, and some of my items from last month's wave have arrived and look great in my condo! The most spectacular piece is the Enchanted Tiki Room Barker Bird, which is a life-size (for a bird) figure of the original "barker bird" (he used to be outside the Tiki Room saying funny things to get guests to come inside). Most of the figure is resin (like a traditional big fig), but he has some accent feathers on his tail, a real wooden perch, and a stiff collar and silk-like bowtie! His eyes are also incredible - like real glass eyes you would find in a natural history museum. Take a closer look and you'll be amazed. This incredible replica was a gift from my parents, since Mom was so upset at the demise of my Jiminy Cricket figure a while back! I'm also really happy with my Disneyland dedication plaque, which is hanging on my wall (photo coming soon), but I'm still waiting on my Jungle Cruise boat - maybe it will be here when I return from Japan!


Kill Bill Vol 1 : 2 of 5

I've been trying to inject some live action movies into all the anime and cartoons that I absorb, so I decided to give Kill Bill a try since I missed it in the theater. I wasn't expecting that much, since I had heard mostly bad stuff about it, but it was still kind of interesting to see. This is basically a total action fighting movie, with little dialogue (except for some scenes which have plenty of narration) and lots of blood (completely anime style, where it spurts out like a firehose). I'm not really a Uma Thurman fan, and I dislike Lucy Liu even more - both of them are just weird and harsh looking, and their characters in this film make them even more gross. However, Lucy's character has a cool sidekick named Gogo who looks nice in her school girl uniform (when she's not killing people). The best parts of the movie for me were listening to the Japanese dialogue, the cool music (some of it performed by Japanese indie bands), plus the extended animated sequence (which tells the background of Lucy's character) - it's pretty cool they spent the money on a long anime-style story inside of the rest of the film! The fighting is exciting sometimes, but I'm simply amazed at how something like this compares to the artistic fighting of Hero or House of Flying Daggers. There's just no comparison, but I'm sure there was never intended to be. Anyway, Kill Bill is an OK movie, and now I'm going to have to rent Volume 2 just to finish the story!


Jam-packed days

What a wild weekend! Not really, but full of activity anyway. Since this is my last big chunk of free time before my trip to Japan, I had tons of errands to run. Yesterday I went to the Texas State History Museum so I could buy gifts (real live Texas stuff!) to take to the families I will be staying with, then I went to the mall to buy other gifts, plus some new pants. I've discovered that I can actually comfortably wear a smaller size waist now, which is amazing! I've been the same waist size as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, now my waist and length combination is "weird", so Gap doesn't keep my size in the store! (Never fear, I've ordered on their website and getting them overnighted!) By the way, I soon realized that this is Austin's "no sales tax" weekend (mainly for clothes), so the mall was as crowded as the Splash Mountain line on a hot day! After dinner I did some grocery shopping, and last night I started getting everything together for packing.

Today was just as crazy - I went to get my hair cut (and painted), which went well, and then drove to Barnes & Noble for more shopping. When I left, I found that I had a flat tire - it seems like I've had tons of those in the past year or so! Anyway, I took advantage of my AAA and they had a guy there to change it in an hour, and waiting inside Barnes & Noble wasn't torture (could have been much worse!). I went to Pep Boys, which wasn't too crowded, but they had to sell me a new tire - the flat must have happened earlier, and I didn't notice it after my haircut, so driving on it did too much damage. No big deal, it was on one of my older tires anyway. On the bright side, during my hair time and tire time I got to read Genshiken Vol 1 (another manga I'm starting) from cover to cover, and I really like it! So, that's my story. Now I have most everything taken care of, and free nights this week for final trip preparations.


Sky High : 3 of 5

I wasn't really sure what to expect from this movie, but my pal Melinda and I wanted to see it and I'm glad we did - it was actually really entertaining! The story is about a high school for superhero kids, where they get divided into "heroes" and "sidekicks" based on their powers. There are tons of fun characters with weird and funny powers, like a guy who can glow, one who melts, and girl who can turn into a guinea pig! I guess what I liked best is that they took a regular "high school" movie, all about growing up, life changing, young relationships and all that, and then added the crazy superhero layer on top, so even though the events are definitely out of the ordinary, they all seem normal somehow. It's cool to see Kurt Russell in a new Disney movie, and it was pretty neat to see Bruce Campbell (my pal Chris' Evil Dead idol) playing the school coach! The rest of the actors were great (all the girls were so cute!), and the effects were pretty cool. I was really impressed with the soundtrack, since every single song was an updated cover of a classic 80s tune! Each time a song came on it was fun to be hearing it again - I may have to check out the soundtrack. Sky High definitely isn't a life-changing theater experience, but it's certainly a lot of fun and a great movie to see and remember what it's like to be a teenager (even you didn't have super-powers)!


Looney Tunes: Golden Collection Vol 2 / 5 of 5

Believe it or not, I got this excellent DVD set for Christmas, so I've still been enjoying some of my gifts even this late in the year! This set is just as spectacular as Volume 1, again including four DVDs full of truly wonderful Warner Bros. classics, all restored to such a degree that they look brand new. The first disc focuses on Bugs Bunny and includes some of the older Tex Avery Bugs cartoons, which are sheer genius (such as Tortoise Beats Hare), and some of my favorite more obscure characters, like Crusher the wrestler, and Witch Hazel (who always zooms away leaving hairpins flying in the air!). The second disc is devoted to Road Runner (who was short-changed in Volume 1), and Dad and I watched this entire disc during the Christmas holiday since we love Road Runner cartoons so much. The third set has mostly Sylvester & Tweety, but also some great Daffy Duck shorts, with an emphasis on Bob Clampett's work. John Kricfalusi's (of Ren & Stimpy fame) commentary on Clampett's Daffy is amazingly engrossing and really stirred up my appreciation for Clampett's cartoon prowess (and also explained some cool techniques like "smear animation"). The final disc has lots of Hollywood parodies and music-based cartoons, including some excellent classical music commentary that really analyzes the use of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody! Finally, the whole set is worth it just for What's Opera Doc?, probably the best Warner Bros. cartoon ever, with two commentaries, separate music and vocal tracks, and a documentary featurette. I'm definitely ready for Volume 3 this Christmas!


Raishuu is almost here

I can't believe that I'm going to Japan next week! This year is passing really quickly, and now suddenly it's time for my third trip to Japan, where I'll be having a total blast with my pals Matt & Kumiko. I'm really looking forward to some of the new experiences I'll be having this time, but not necessarily the 14-hour flight by myself (on my previous trips I had travel buddies!). I'll be prepared with just about every hand-held gadget I own, so along with lots of booze-induced sleeping, I'm sure I'll make it OK. I had another Japanese session with Kazuki last night, which had a few moments (short ones) that felt like real speaking! Well, on the subject of Japanese things, here are some quick manga mini-reviews.
  • Hikaru no Go is definitely my favorite series, and I've read all four available volumes, so I can't wait for the fifth! The story is really compelling, and the artwork is some of the best I've seen in my limited exposure to manga.
  • I heard about Yotsuba&! in Newtype USA, and since it's by the creator of Azumanga Daioh (which I've been watching on DVD), I decided to give it a try. I can't wait for the next book, because these stories of a bizarre little girl, her dad, and their neighbors are just heart-warming (and hilarious!) - definitely full of life-lessons, that's for sure.
  • I finished the second volume of I''s in a day, because it's getting pretty interesting now that there's a love triangle going on (sort of). The characters are really cute, and the fan service is just right.
  • I'm completely amazed at the artwork in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, because Miyazaki is just too talented for words. Of course, I knew he was an artist since I've seen his storyboards for films, but he's an incredible manga artist, too! The story in the first volume is almost exactly like the film, but there are a few additions that really make me want to get into the next book (which I just bought!).


Full Metal Panic Vol 3 : 3 of 5

I'm still really enjoying this cool series, and I especially like how the plot seems to rise and fall in cycles, rather than just one huge storyline that's easy to lose track of. This volume completes a cycle nicely, focusing on a group of terrorists who have built a gargantuan Arm Slave called Behemoth (what else?) that uses the Lambda Driver! There's a great sub-plot where we get to know the female commander Tessa better, since she goes ashore instead of staying in her submarine as usual. Of course, she decides to take a shower right when Kaname drops by with some food for Sosuke, and things get pretty crazy since Tessa is only sixteen. She's a really interesting character, since somehow she's in charge of armies of folks twice her age, and while we've seen her make quick decisions, it's unclear if she really has an understanding of everything (but my prediction is she's a Whispered!). Eventually Sosuke has to use the Arbalest to fight Behemoth, and Kaname uses her powers to tell him just where to hit to bring down the huge machine. Finally, Tessa admits to Kaname that she's fallen in love with Sosuke, so I guess I can look forward to a fun love triangle from now on! This is definitely a great series, and bringing a new character to the forefront about ten episodes from the start is a great move to keep things interesting!


Disneyland in July, Part 5

Yes, I'm still going on and on about this latest Disneyland trip, but this is the finale, I promise! Also, it's not even about Disneyland itself, but about the fantastic meal that Dae and I had at Napa Rose, the incredible restaurant inside Disney's Grand Californian Hotel. After our first day at the park, we made the short walk to the restaurant in time for our 8:00 PM reservation, and had a quick drink at the bar first. After we were seated, we took a look at the menu, and we both agreed to go absolutely nuts! We ordered the Vintner's Table, which is a four-course meal that includes a different wine with each course. It was a totally amazing experience, and we ate (and drank) every last bit - I couldn't believe how great the wine pairings were! I asked for a copy of the menu, just so I could type this up (you can also follow along with my food photos):
  • Stuffed fig with pancetta (bonus appetizer)
  • Pan-seared lobster-scallop sausage with sauteed heirloom cherry tomatoes and opal basil in sunburst tomato broth (my favorite course), with Gargiulo 2004 Rosato
  • Oak-roasted summer artichoke topped with tri-colored salad, crispy duck confit and cherry-goat cheese crostini, with Dry Creek 2004 Chenin Blanc
  • Wine country barbecued angus beef tri-tip and black-eyed pea ragu and roasted corn and nameko mushroom salsa, with Qupe 2002 Syrah
  • Sweet Arctic White peach semi-feddo with roasted honey-crisp peaches and boysenberry granite, with Herzog 2003 Riesling
Needless to say, we were full, tipsy, and broke, but it was worth it! And so we end this Disney extravaganza with another set of photos, this time highlighting cool details in the park (I could spend all day taking pictures like these).

View photos: Disneyland details


Mary Poppins / 40th Anniversary Edition : 5 of 5

I'm sure that over a long time I'll end up buying nearly every Disney movie on DVD again, because they slowly keep releasing better versions of their films! Since Mary Poppins is definitely one of my most favorite movies, I bought this two-DVD set when it came out several months ago, and finally got the chance to enjoy it recently. Of course, the movie looks spectacular, and has a new audio mix to really take advantage of home theater speakers. There's a special "popup facts" feature that displays really interesting trivia and history related to the scene that's playing, and I was really impressed by the quality and obscurity of the facts! Can you believe that Julie Andrews recorded Stay Awake over 40 times to get the right lullaby quality in her voice? The second DVD is filled with excellent bonus material (much, much more than was included on the first DVD release), including a new hour-long documentary that interviews most of the stars (narrated by Dick Van Dyke, who looks pretty amazing for his age), and concludes with some truly tear-jerking praise for Walt and what he accomplished. They've also pieced together most of the footage from the premiere at Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, which is a ton of fun to watch, especially seeing Walt and his wife Lillian together. Finally, there's a wealth of material about the creation of the wonderful music, and it's really interesting to listen to Robert Sherman talk about how they did it. No one can deny how "practically perfect" this movie is, and now Mary Poppins has an excellent DVD set to match!