Friday, July 08, 2011

Is Tokyo radioactive?

So I brought my geiger counter with me to Japan last month, half serious about wanting to make sure nothing I ate or nowhere I went was going to kill me with radiation. By this time, though, I think most people's fears have justifiably waned a bit, but I do still see paranoid people in various Japan-themed forums I read that are stuck under their tinfoil hats and insisting that the government is lying and Tokyo is really just a glowing post-apocalyptic hellhole of nuclear fallout and radioactivity, and everyone there is facing a slow and painful burning, flesh-eating death.

So here's my informal little test. I think it pretty much speaks for itself.



By the way, background radiation normally induces one or two clicks per minute even in the United States, so the one click you saw at the end is totally, 100% normal. (Probably should have noted that tidbit in the video itself.)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Riding in a Joban Line Green Car

I previously blogged about my experience in a shinkansen green car - basically the closest thing the Japanese have to "first class" on most trains.  But did you know they also have green cars on some commuter trains?  My wife's family lives on the Joban line, and luckily it's one such line.

She had never taken one before and every time we visit, we lug all of our luggage into a standard car and either leave it sitting in the middle of the car or have to stand with it for 45 minutes because the trains are so crowded.  I unfortunately have never taken a photo of a regular Joban line car but usually they look something like this:


(That photo's from urbanneighbourhood.com, but I'm sure it's a stock photo.)

You can imagine riding a train like that with three or four large suitcases in tow, for up to an hour.

This time I pretty much insisted that we take a green car both to and from Tokyo.  Well, the inbound leg didn't quite work out as planned - we ended up barely making a Hitachi Limited Express train instead, and we stood in the vestibule halfway to Ueno.  We did manage to make it to the "green car" at the first (and only intermediate) stop, but it was just like any other car on that train.  On the plus side, it was pretty empty, and the train was fast - about 20 minutes to Ueno instead of the usual 45.


Our "green car" on the way in to Tokyo - not bad for a Japanese commuter train, but we had to pay extra both for the express fare and the green car, and there was just nothing special about this alleged green car.

We finally made it into a proper green car on the way back out.



Just compare that with the photo at the top.  It's a completely different world.  The seats face forward (and recline!), there's plenty of legroom, and for some reason, almost nobody else uses these cars!  Forget about people standing in the aisles - through most of our trip, we had the entire end of the car to ourselves.  This was the real reason I wanted to ride in one - just to get out of the crowd.  I knew from previous experience that whenever I've seen a Joban line train pull into a station, the green cars are basically empty.  I can't believe they make any money off these cars.

The green cars on the Joban line are bi-level cars, but they do have single-level seats at the ends.  Since we had four heavy suitcases plus a bunch of paper bags full of stuff with us, we went for the single-level seats.  I don't know if I could even stand up in the bi-level section of the car - the cars aren't any taller than the regular single level cars.  Unlike in American bi-level commuter trains, the single-level section has a door, so you feel like you're in your own little room when you're in this area.

Here's where we sat from the outside:


The unexpected bonus: like on the shinkansen, car attendants come through the Joban line green cars with snacks and drinks!  Remember now, this is on a commuter train.  This is like getting at-seat snack service on the LIRR - imagine such a thing.  My wife didn't even expect this, and she lived in Japan for 28 years.  It was brutally hot outside and we were loaded up with stuff so I quenched my thirst with an iced green tea bought from the car attendant.


The cost for our green car seats?  Only 550 yen - about $6 extra over a standard ticket.


Totally worth it.  I would ride this way every day if I lived on this line, or at least a couple times a week.  It's a much more civilized way to travel.

You can get a green car ticket at any ticket machine - and you can buy it separately from the main ticket.  (In other words, if you aren't sure and decide to buy it later, you can do it even after buying your original ticket.)  On some platforms, there are machines just for buying green car tickets for those making last-minute decisions.

Look for this option on any JR train you happen to take in Japan.  Not all trains have it, but most commuter trains with a lengthy run do, as do the vast majority of shinkansen trains and most "express" trains.  As our experience on the Hitachi Express demonstrated, it's not always worth it, but two out of the three green cars I've ridden in so far have been 100%, totally worth the extra money.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Japan 2011 The Food: Breakfast


This was our western-style breakfast at our hotel.  I'm always amused by "western-style" breakfasts in Japan, because there's always some weird element that we would never, ever have in the morning.  In this case, it's a salad with raw onions.  I had to brush my teeth again after eating this!  (Yeah I ate it... I was feeling vegetable-deprived at that point, since almost all of our meals this trip were meat, meat and more meat.)

The first time I ever went to Japan, in 1999 or 2000, I had my first western-style breakfast, and the pattern was set.  Included in my breakfast that day were... (drum roll)... french fries!  Not hash browns, not some other, more commonly accepted breakfast form of potato, but full-on french fries, like you'd expect to get with your Whopper with Cheese at Burger King.

I think this all stems from the fact that Japanese breakfasts are more or less just another meal with the same ingredients as lunch and dinner.  Traditionally they're based on things like fish and rice, like any other meal.  So they don't quite get that western breakfast is a whole separate thing from the later meals in the day.  If they feel like some element's missing, they'll just grab it from some other meal.

Anyway, a lot of people go to places like Japan and get western stuff there because they don't really want to feel like they ever left home.  Me, I get western stuff specifically because I enjoy their interpretations of it.  Not everybody understands this, and my parents used to yell at me for not immersing myself in the local culture whenever I went somewhere new.  But to me these somewhat off interpretations of western culture are a part of Japanese culture, in the same way that "Engrish" is Japanese culture and not really English.  I have fun with the little manglements.

Tokyo Sky Tree

I'd forgotten they were even building this thing until our second to last day in Japan, but I had seen it from a distance and wondered what the hell it was. I looked it up and suddenly remembered reading about a "new Tokyo Tower" a while back - well, it's now the Tokyo Sky Tree.  And it's the tallest free-standing tower in the world.


That's a stitched panorama, so I know there's a little weirdness at the seams.  (Autostitch seems to want to match the wires rather than the tower.)

It's not really in such a dumpy neighborhood, I just liked this juxtaposition as we walked around it.  It's actually in Asakusa, which is both an area with a famous temple and from where we took the Himiko boat to Odaiba a few years ago.  And they're building a whole new tourist destination around this tower, but it's not done yet.

It's kind of impossible to convey how tall this thing looks in person.  Here's a side view:


It is the tallest structure in Tokyo by far.  At 634 meters (2,080 feet), it is currently the second tallest free-standing structure of any kind on Earth, next to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  (It doesn't get included on lists of "world's tallest buildings" because it is a "tower", not a "building", though that's kind of a meaningless distinction when you're talking about a tower like this.)  It probably won't hold that distinction for long, but in any case, it's freakin' tall.  It's kind of weird that hardly anybody outside of Japan seems to even know about it.

One reason may be that it's not finished, but then everybody knew about the Burj Khalifa or CN Tower before they were finished.  But you can't go up in it yet; all you can do is walk around it and take pictures like I did.  When they do open the observation deck, they're apparently going to be charging around $30 to get up there - kind of a ripoff, but I'll bet people will pay it.  It's not like views like that are so easy to get in Tokyo.

If you're wondering what's wrong with Tokyo Tower (other than the fact that it's bent) and why they need a new huge tower like this in Tokyo, apparently you can blame it all on HDTV and other digital broadcasts; Tokyo Tower is too short and in too congested an area to carry those kinds of signals.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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