Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mini-Review: PUFFY's "boom boom beat" Single (import)

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Back to Japan and the Tokyo Game Show

Woohoo! So it looks like we'll be returning to Japan less than a year after my last trip, and this time we'll be heading to the Tokyo Game Show. TGS is kind of a special thing for me, though it's hard to explain why. My first trip to Japan was to cover Nintendo SpaceWorld 2000 for the web site I was employed by at the time. My second trip was for TGS just a couple months later. Both trips combined were actually something of a life-changing experience, and since both shows were held in the same place and I even stayed at the same hotel, they both sort of blend together now in my mind. I went alone, which would probably scare a lot of people - the culture is so different - but not me. I loved it, and took full advantage of my off-time to explore Makuhari and Tokyo. It was my first experience of Japan.

I've never been back to TGS - this will be the first time since 2000. I'll be going with my wife this time, so it should be even more fun. Of course, we're going to do more than just TGS - we'll be there for a week. (Not 2 weeks like last year, but it's hard for me to take that much time off at once.) But so far, TGS is the one event we've definitely got planned. If you're wondering, this year's show is being held 9/20-9/23, with the last two days open to the public.

For anyone reading this who hasn't been there, I'll give you a little rundown from TGS 2000, complete with some of the pics I took at the time. I can't imagine it's changed all that much since then. I do know the crowds are even bigger.

The Tokyo Game Show is not actually held in Tokyo. It's held in Makuhari, which is about 20 miles away - sort of like having a "New York Game Show" but actually holding it in, I don't know, Trenton, NJ. Makuhari itself is a city of about 800,000 people, though it feels like a sleepy little town outside of the area right around the Makuhari Messe, which is the city's convention center.

The Makuhari Messe is an absolutely massive complex, far larger than any convention center I've ever seen in the United States. I've said it before, the Japanese build big. Surrounding the convention center is a network of hotels and shopping centers, the Chiba Marine Stadium, and one or two company buildings, making for something of a business district. One interesting thing about this part of Makuhari is that you can walk anywhere without touching street level, as the entire district is built with raised walkways. When there's no convention going on, it can really feel like a ghost town - no cars, no pedestrians, nothing. There is no residential housing in the area, although some people do come to the shopping centers for entertainment on weekends.

Both times I've stayed in Makuhari, I've been at the Makuhari Prince. It's got some great views of the surrounding area.

That shot was probably actually the morning after I arrived. I remember taking it - I wasn't used to flying into a 14 hour time difference, so I fell asleep at about 4PM and woke up at about 3AM the next morning. (Nowadays I can actually manage to stay up until a normal hour my first night, then be on a regular schedule.) I remember it being just incredibly quiet and still when I took that photo. In fact, one of the first things I noticed about Japan was how quiet it is, everywhere, even in big cities. They even muffle their air conditioners. I actually have a hard time sleeping there because I'm used to the constant buzz of various electrical devices in my house. But it made this particular morning feel kind of magical, and very different from what I normally wake up to.

This is one of the entrances to the Makuhari Messe. This was probably around 5AM, so not really indicative of the level of foot traffic you'd normally see here.

Same deal with this one. MS was launching their Xbox that year. Little did they know how badly it'd bomb there.

As a member of the press, I got to go to the official keynote and show open. A pretty dry affair, honestly.

You can see the sign says "Autumn" - back then, they did two of these per year!

Now we're talkin'. This was the first day of TGS. That's the Makuhari Messe, and that's the line to get in to TGS. Open the photo up if you can't see it. It's pretty unbelievable.

This is what the inside of the show floor looks like:

That was the line waiting to play Guilty Gear X. Yikes! No, I didn't wait in it.

I did wait in this:

Kind of a funny story. I saw a huge line, so I thought it must be something important. As someone who was supposed to be there to cover all the big stories, I figured I'd better see what it was about. There were no signs or anything. So what was at the end of the line? This:

Well, ok, not just that. It was a line to get in to the Tokimeki Memorial merchandise store. A giant waste of time. I ended up buying this just so I'd have some kind of souvenir for the 1 1/2 hours I spent waiting. And also a keychain. At least the cookies tasted good.

This was my first introduction to the Japanese dance fad of the time, "para para":

This was a dance that was similar to vogue in this country, all hands and arms, though it was always done to Eurobeat, and it's most often associated with the whole "ko-gal" look. Konami, king of all rhythm game developers, had created a game to cash in on the fad called "Para Para Paradise". It worked just like their popular "Dance Dance Revolution" series, with a sensor that could tell how well you were para para'ing. Anyway, they put on this little show with about 30 dancing girls to try to sell it, and I was hooked pretty much immediately. I'd never seen anything like it, it was just so weird, seeing all these Japanese dancing girls flailing their arms around to Eurobeat in order to sell a video game, and everybody in the crowd taking them completely seriously. This show singlehandedly convinced me of Japan's greatness as a country.

Of course I bought the home release of Para Para Paradise, along with two of the special controllers.

Another random pic from the show floor - Sony's Gran Turismo 2000:

TGS is known both in Japan and in the west for its campaign girls (or the more western "booth babes") - they're everywhere:

Though their job really is to actively market things. You'll never catch a picture of one without marketing materials prominently displayed:

And yes, they are there to get their picture taken. It's part of their job. The game companies know those pictures will show up in magazines and web sites all over the world, along with whatever it is that the girls happen to be holding and hopefully a prominent company logo. Talk about free advertising. If there's one thing the Japanese are good at, it's stealth marketing.

In between halls of the convention center, there is an area devoted to cosplay:

Yeah, kinda hard to tell from that pic, eh? It's just a giant mass of people. I'm not even sure how I got this photo. On the left, though you can see some of the cosplayers in the little nooks right next to the building. There are actually totally organized lines of people waiting to snap photos of the cosplayers. It's part of the show, so of course I did my part and queued up:

I have no freakin' clue what game that girl is supposed to be from. I'm pretty sure the guys are supposed to be STARS agents from Resident Evil/Biohazard.

If you've made it this far through the post, I may as well wrap it up with a couple totally random photos I took that have special meaning to me:

This was from my first day ever in Japan. It actually wasn't for TGS but for SpaceWorld a couple months earlier. Still, same place. This is a little park right next to the hotel, and that's Chiba Marine Stadium up ahead. To the right is the business district of Makuhari, and to the left is a private beach and Tokyo Bay. I was the only person in this park. It was really strange.

This was also during SpaceWorld in August 2000:

Unbeknownst to me, there was an Utada Hikaru concert scheduled while I was there. This was probably the height of her popularity, about 2 years after she had first burst on the scene (she's now Japan's all-time top-selling recording artist). I got to watch the show from my hotel window, although I couldn't really see the stage - but I could see the large screen behind the stage that had her projected on it.

They filmed this show and turned it into the Bohemian Summer 2000 concert DVD. There are several helicopter shots that show my hotel, and I swear you can see me watching from my window.

Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lombardi's and Real New York Pizza

Tonight, we went out to eat at the first (as in the original) pizzeria in the United States. It's right where you'd expect it to be, in New York City. I'm talking about Lombardi's Pizza on Spring St. in SoHo. Yes, SOHO. Not "Nolita", not "Little Italy." I'm a native New Yorker, and I'm telling you the neighborhood is called SoHo. Don't let anyone else tell you different.

Sorry about the quality of that pic. I was walking with my cell phone and just took a quick snap.

Back in what, 1897 or something like that, an Italian immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi brought a recipe for Neapolitan Pizza from Italy to the United States. Pizza as we know it had only just been invented a few years before, as a way of showing Italian pride to Queen Margherita (the red, white and green of the Italian flag being represented by the sauce, the mozzarella and chopped basil). It's true that flat breads, sometimes slathered in garlic and herbs, had been eaten for hundreds of years prior all over Europe. But modern pizza with the sauce and cheese was not invented until the 1890's, and it was brought over here by Gennaro Lombardi just afterwards. He originally opened a grocery store, started selling pizza out of it, and eventually opened Lombardi's in 1905.

This is the pizza that served as the template for all thin crust pizza in the United States. It's been bastardized all to hell since then, in most places. Not Lombardi's.

While the original family members are now long since gone, Lombardi's still makes their pizza the way they've always made it. Thin sliced (not grated) fresh mozzarella, homemade sauce, thin crust cooked in a coal oven. You see lots of pizzerias these days advertise "brick" ovens. Who the hell cares about brick? Brick doesn't cook anything. It's the coal that matters.

Coal is the only way to get the temperature up to where it needs to be. Pizza needs to be cooked at above 800 degrees. Anything less and you just end up with a soggy mess. This is what a lot of Americans are used to, but it ain't right. A good pizza crust is crispy on the outside, soft but chewy on the inside - like a good fresh-baked bagel. (Maybe not a great example; good bagels aren't any easier to find in a lot of places.) It also has a lot of flavor on its own, because the coal helps season it - just like it does on your barbecue. What, you do use charcoal on your grill, right? Don't tell me you barbecue with GAS?!

You see that? That's coal dust. Yes, you eat it. It's good for you! At least if you're eating pizza.

The problem with coal ovens are that they're dangerous and dirty. For this reason, you don't see them much anymore, even in New York. They were actually outlawed in the 1960's or 70's, but there was a provision in the law that "grandfathered in" any existing coal ovens, provided the owners did certain things to ensure safety. Only a few restaurants that I know of still have them - Lombardi's and John's pizzerias in Manhattan, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Sac's Place in Astoria, Queens. There may be one or two more, but I know I haven't missed many.

One funny thing about Lombardi's is that they have pictures of burning coal on the wall. When you see that, you know you're in a Real Pizzeria.

(Quick digression. Some New Yorkers say that Grimaldi's has better pizza than Lombardi's these days. Both me and my wife couldn't disagree more with this. Grimaldi's pizza is almost tasteless by comparison, with a crust that's so flat and crunchy it may as well be a cracker. I'm convinced that the people who say they like Grimaldi's better are just Brooklyn hipsters with a Manhattan inferiority complex.)

Lombardi's has expanded quite a bit in the past few years. Up until about 2003 or so, they were nothing more than a little hole in the side of a building stuffed with tiny little tables. The door opened straight into the dining room (no double door), so in the winter, you'd be eating with your heavy coat on. The original dining room still exists - we ate in it tonight - but there's also now a larger dining room adjacent to it and a smaller "wine cellar" styled dining room in the basement. Each dining room has a pretty distinct feel, with the original dining room retaining most of its authenticity and the newer ones having a little more of a tourist vibe.

That photo's from a previous night out in one of the other rooms. The original dining room has no such souvenir signs and still has the red and white checkered tablecloths. Of course, the food is the same no matter where in the restaurant you eat. The only difference is the extra space has cut the wait time for a table down from an hour to between 10 and 15 minutes most of the time.

Tonight, we ordered a large pie half plain, half meatball and onion. I'd never had a plain pie there before, which seemed like a travesty - I wanted to make sure I was really judging them properly. A plain pizza is the true original and it's all about balance - not too much of any one ingredient, and everything should have an equal say in the taste and texture of the overall pie. After tonight, I can't say I have any complaints. I've always argued it's the sauce that really makes a great pizza - anyone can get decent mozzarella (cutting it right is the problem), and good crust isn't really all that mysterious (it just takes the right oven), but sauce is an art. Most pizza sauce is either totally tasteless or it's just nothing but salt. The best pizza sauce is filled with fresh tomato flavor and not much else. It should be like biting into a ripe, just-picked vine tomato in your own garden. Not easy to do in a sauce. Lombardi's gets it right.

They also hand-make their own meatballs, and they're amazing. It's hard for me not to get a meatball pie whenever I go there. Anyone from outside the New York area goes "huh?" whenever I talk about meatball pizza - let me tell you, this is probably the most popular pizza topping here.

After Lombardi's, we stopped across the street at this place Rice to Riches, which I still can't believe even exists. They moved in when I worked in the area a few years ago, and they sell nothing but rice pudding. Like almost everywhere in New York, there's a story behind the store. I don't remember all the details, but shortly after opening, local newspapers reported that the owner was using the store as a front for a major illegal gambling operation. We at my office had all wondered how any store could survive just selling rice pudding, and as soon as we read that, we all collectively slapped our foreheads and said "duh!" Even the name suddenly made more sense.

Still, the place remains in business and seems to have made no changes. I'm not sure if it's under the same ownership or not. I will say the rice pudding is quite good, although after getting a little adventurous with the flavors the last couple times I've gone, I'll probably just stick with the vanilla or plain next time. (Hey, I'm not completely boring - I did try a bunch of the other flavors. I just think rice pudding is best left unmolested.)

That probably doesn't look very appetizing. But trust me, it's actually pretty good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Look Back - PUFFY (AmiYumi) Spike Daisakusen DVD

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Monday, July 09, 2007

PUFFY Update #2

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This post now resides at my Puffy-dedicated blog amiyumidas. Please click here to be taken directly to the post. If you're interested in Puffy, you may want to browse around a bit while you're there - I've got a lot of cool stuff.

Please update your bookmarks.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

July 4, New York City style

Yesterday my wife and I took both of our mothers on a July 4th cruise to watch the New York City fireworks. This was the first time my mother-in-law has seen the NYC fireworks show, though the rest of us have all done it before. It can be kind of an ordeal; one of those things that, like the ball drop on New Year's Eve, you might not feel the need to do again after you've done it once. The main problem is the crowds, which are huge, and consequently you need to get there very early (as in, around 2PM) and then you sit there and wait for hours with no bathroom, no food or drink, and no entertainment other than whatever you brought with you.

But this was our first time on a cruise, and even though we went with a "cheap" NY Waterway cruise, I've gotta say it's the way to go if you want to see the NYC fireworks. The NY Waterway cruise costs $75 per person, which is not expensive by New York standards - most of these cruises cost $200 and up and include a full dinner and comfortable seating. NY Waterway is pretty basic - their boats are commuter ferries, and they'll only sell you a hot dog and a beer (and they ran out of hot dogs). But the point is to just get a good vantage point for the fireworks without dealing with a crush of people.

By the way, that's lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center and the twin towers would have been on the left of this photo, where it looks like there's an empty space. Hopefully we won't have to stare at that hole much longer.

Now, I'm not saying this experience was always pleasant. We arrived at 6PM for what we thought would be a 6:30PM boarding, only to be greeted by a non-air conditioned indoor pier and a long wait. The lines grew to what seemed like impossible lengths as 6:30PM came and went. We didn't board until 7PM and we immediately made a bee-line for the second deck of the boat - only to find it soaking wet from the rain we'd been having. We ended up going down to the indoor first deck where it was dry, but the view wasn't as good as we sailed down to the tip of lower Manhattan.

And yeah, it rained most of the day. As we sailed, most of those hardy enough to try the second deck moved downstairs with us, and it got a bit crowded. The snack vendor ran out of dogs and explained that the boat was oversold - not sure how that can happen, honestly, but then this is New York, city of incompetence. Still, it wasn't so crowded that we couldn't move around, and we did - we changed seats several times depending on the view, and we went upstairs to see if we could tough it out. The nice thing about being on a boat is you don't have to worry quite as much about your stuff being stolen if you leave it for a second - nobody's going anywhere. And it was kind of a party atmosphere, with everybody getting to know everybody else.

We sailed near the Statue of Liberty before slowly making our way back towards Manhattan, parking in the harbor just off Battery Park alongside three other NY Waterway boats and countless other private yachts, dinner cruise boats and small sailboats. There was a pretty impressive police presence including helicopters flying in formation, boats positioned about every 1/4 mile and patrol cars visible on all the bridges and coastal roads. Some of it was normal for any July 4, but it definitely seemed to have been beefed up with the recent security scares in London and Glasgow.

The fireworks began at around 9:30PM, during a fortunate lull in the rain that allowed me to make my way to the outdoor front of the boat and get a spot right at the railing. I got some good photos and my wife, who was standing a bit behind me, got some video. This is probably what you've all come here hoping to see:

"Yeah, baby!" I laugh every time I watch that last one. That guy wouldn't stop joking about how "that was just a test, this is the grand finale!" It was sort of funny the first time, not really funny the second time, and just plain annoying the third through the thirtieth times.

If you're wondering, the NYC fireworks are actually launched from several barges in the East River. You can see there's another location up the river a bit in the background of these videos. Everywhere gets the same show, though, and it's all run by computer.

Here are a couple more photos I took with my Canon Rebel XT/350D:

My photos came out pretty nice, although I did use the wrong lens. I meant to change to my 50mm/1.8 for low light shooting, but I forgot. Oh well. So at full size, these are a little blurrier than they otherwise would have been. C'est la vie.

After the fireworks ended, all the boats sounded their horns in appreciation (which was kinda cool) and we headed back to the pier.

For good measure, here's a photo of the inside of the boat on the way back. The DJ was doing his best to maintain the party atmosphere but most people just wanted to sit and relax:

Here's the boat as we disembarked, in what had again become a pouring rain:

So that's July 4 in New York City. I had meant to post some video of last July 4 in my neighborhood on Long Island, because it's really pretty crazy - like a war zone - but I can't seem to find my files from last year. I'll have to update this once I do (hope I saved 'em!).

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A real blog post, for once

I've had family visiting for the past couple weeks so I haven't had a chance to even think much about posting anything new. But I figured I'd take a few minutes and just talk about a few things I've been up to and a few things I've got coming up. I guess that's what most people use their blogs for anyway.

So shortly after finishing my last post, we embarked on a massive fix-up of our house to prepare for my mother-in-law's arrival from Japan. We had about a hundred unfinished projects around, and we got to as many as we could. As you may or may not know, we own a 1923 "Colonial Revival" house that has never really been upgraded, so we've got quite a lot still left to do. But we finally finished painting the first floor, got some curtains up to cover our patio windows, got some pictures up on the walls both in the living room and the guest bedroom, and replaced the sagging curtain "rods" in the guest bedroom. We have bay windows and I didn't know how to cover them originally, so I tried these tension wire rods because they were small and could get around corners... big mistake. You can't keep these things tight, and the wire sags... which just looks ugly. So I put up some real rods, which meant spackling and repainting the walls. Then I painted the ugly radiator for good measure.

Over the past week, we've been trying not to use our computers as much for my mother-in-law's sake. Been watching way too much TV instead. We got TV Japan, which is mostly just NHK, and my m-i-l's been watching mostly that. We got it just in time, actually, to watch a show my wife happened to be on that week - Cool Japan. (They found her through her blog.) I'm not sure yet if we'll keep TV Japan after my m-i-l leaves - it's kind of expensive. Makes me feel like I'm in Japan when I watch it, though.

Tonight, we're going out to eat at Sakagura, which is one of our favorite restaurants and a cool place that still feels a little bit like a secret. It's down in the basement of an otherwise non-descript office building, and there's only a small floor-standing sign near the front door to let you know it's there. They got a writeup in the NY Times several years ago, though, and ever since then the number of western clientele has increased quite a bit. Good for them, though - if there's one thing I hate more than crowded restaurants, it's good restaurants going out of business. And Sakagura is a really good restaurant - though they're known more for their sake selection, which is the best in the city.

Tomorrow, we're taking one of those July 4th cruises on the East River to watch the fireworks. I've gone to the fireworks before, but never on the water, so I'm looking forward to it. Usually it's so crowded you can barely even move, so it'll be cool to be in a more controlled environment where the number of tickets are limited.

This weekend, we'll have the house back to ourselves, and I'll probably start writing some new posts. I'm planning to do a July 4th post about the fireworks both in NYC and my neighborhood, then I've got a "retroview" of PUFFY's "Spike Daisakusen" DVD in the works. After that, who knows.

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.


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