Saturday, June 20, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Ushiku Daibutsu

This is one of those things I've been meaning to do on every trip I've ever taken to Japan and have never gotten around to before.

The Ushiku Daibutsu is the tallest bronze statue in the world. It used to be the tallest statue of any kind in the world, but that title now belongs to another Buddha statue in China (made of copper). Ushiku Daibutsu is in my wife's prefecture, and we've driven by it a whole bunch of times but never actually gone up there. It's kind of like how I'm within sight of the Statue of Liberty pretty much every other day so I never think to actually visit it; my in-laws are the same with this. But we finally went this time, at least for 10 minutes or so. (We didn't have time to go inside, though you can go up to the top and look out through slits in the Buddha's chest.)

This thing is huge. It's difficult to capture its scale in pictures. That concrete base alone is three stories high. The statue itself is three times taller than the Statue of Liberty and 30 times larger by volume. I heard some other westerners saying "what's the point?" as they were looking at it, but that's like asking "what's the point of a temple?" or "what's the point of a cathedral?" It is a religious thing, not just a tourist destination.

I didn't just go there because it's a big statue, though. No, I went there because of course, this was the setting for the final battle scene of one of my favorite movies!

That's the ending of "Kamikaze Girls", which is about a Lolita and a Yanqui girl who react very differently to the boringness of Ibaraki prefecture (and let's face it, it is boring), but who end up best friends. At the end of the movie, they need to fight their way through an all-girl biker gang, meeting up at Ushiku Daibutsu.

We actually looked for the exact spot where they filmed this but we couldn't find it, mostly because we forgot what the actual view of the statue was in the movie. We were looking everywhere but this side. I don't think you can actually get to that location from inside the statue grounds anyway; you can see that even in the movie, it's fenced off. It's probably not empty anymore either; I think they cleared this area just for filming. I definitely didn't see any clearings like this anywhere around the statue. (If you look at the Google map aerial view of this area, you can see where the filming must have taken place, and that land seems to have some sort of use.)

Ah well. Still was fun, though, and an impressive sight. Nothing like this exists in the United States, not on this scale.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: MOSDO!

I wrote about the MOSDO donut burger before our trip - of course, it was one of the first things on our itinerary. I'm actually at that weird stage right now where I'm looking at all my photos that I took for blog posts and thinking "did I really do that? Was I actually in Japan two weeks ago?" It already no longer seems quite real as I settle back into my normal routine. But anyway...

I thought you had to pick one version, but no - they give you both. They're tiny, so it works out.

Here's a "potedo", the fries that are available with it, complete with ketchup:

I admit I didn't realize that yes, that's real ketchup. That was kind of an odd taste sensation - I was expecting it to be some kind of cherry or strawberry thing (it's a freakin' donut!) but no, as it hit my tongue I got that tang and salty taste and I was momentarily confused.

The MOSDO itself is actually pretty good, and not too sweet like I was worried it would be. The "bun" is not really sweetened at all, so it really is just like a piece of soft bread, then the chocolate "patty" is really just a chocolate bar, then there's some foam and sauce where most of the sweetness comes from.

I also didn't realize that MOS Burger also has their own MOSDO - this is not a one-way thing.

In a way it's actually kind of a ripoff, because they're just cutting a hole in the middle of the meat. But they do also give it a new flavor, which seems totally unrelated to it supposedly being a "donut", but whatever. It's "wasabi" flavored, which I actually thought was really good.

See, they stick it right in the hole. (Also underneath the rest of the meat.)

I put "wasabi" in quotes because I don't think that's really what it is - you can see it's white, and it tasted to me like regular horseradish. I don't know if the Japanese really know what western horseradish is, though, so they just call it "wasabi" (which is a kind of horseradish anyway). Or maybe they do know, and they just thought calling it wasabi would sell better.

In any case, like other spicy stuff in Japan, they're not messing around. This burger will burn your eyebrows off and make steam come out of your ears. Yeah, it was good. Though not good enough to supercede my default spicy MOS burger, which I went back to on subsequent visits.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Quarantine!

I'm falling behind on my Japan trip report, so I figured I'd better post this now given that it's already getting pretty obsolete:

I'd heard that Japan was being a little paranoid about the H1N1 swine flu virus (ironic, given that regular old non-swine flu seems to be their biggest problem), and sure enough, when we landed at Narita our airplane was quarantined before we were allowed off.

What this meant was that we all had to sit down and wait as a group of doctors in full protective bio-suits roamed up and down the plane looking for people who they thought might be sick. It was like something out of a Spielberg movie, and I really wanted to take photos of these people but I was afraid that'd be an excuse for them to pull me off the plane. I did at least get the souvenir "You were quarantined!!" notice pictured above.

The funny thing was there seemed to be no scientific methodology to whatever these doctors were doing. I suppose they were looking for anyone sweating, or coughing, or pale, or whatever. But surely this disease has an incubation period, or symptoms that can be hidden in the early stages - I mean, can you really control a virus by just looking at people to see if you think they're sick? It all seemed pointless.

Anyway, it didn't take long, and it gave me a little story to tell.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


So I came home from Japan with a fever, an awful cough and probably the most clogged sinuses anyone's ever had ever. I swear, they make a big deal out of wearing surgical masks whenever they're sick over there, but I have never seen so many obviously sick people in my life and they seem to see the mask-wearing as an excuse to cough all over the place without covering their mouths. I got coughed on more often on this Japan trip than I can remember. And I got really sick because of it.

Anyway, I've got a lot of stuff to write and some other stuff that's already written and that I just need to organize images and whatnot into. So I'll start posting more on my Japan trip soon, probably tomorrow...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sigma 18-50 2.8-4.5 DC OS lens hands-on

7/28 UPDATE: For those who haven't been following, the original lens I did this test with was replaced as defective (it clearly wasn't working right some of the time). I took a few new test shots over the past weekend with the new lens and while it may just be wishful thinking on my part, I do think it's slightly better optically. The overall conclusions below still hold, as do the general design conclusions I reached, but I think my new lens is just a slightly better example than the old one even beyond simply working correctly :)

I'll post the new shots in a few days - sorry, you'll have to check back one more time.

Anyway, the original post continues below.


I just wanted to post something quick about this, because I know a lot of people (including myself) have been waiting for this lens, and I just happened to find it here in Japan, at one particular Yodobashi Camera, available only in a Canon mount. It was right at $300 (29,800 yen).

I haven't had a chance to do any exhaustive tests so far but generally I'm really happy with it as an upgrade to my old Rebel XT kit lens.


* Built like a tank, at least for a consumer-level lens (looks almost exactly like their 18-50 f/2.8 EX lens, minus the gold stripe)
* Image stabilization works really well
* Non-rotating front element
* No lens extension during zoom - all movement is internal
* Hypersonic motor is very quiet (though not silent, nor all that fast)
* Includes a hood


* Actually slightly less sharp in the corners than my kit lens (though I've been told I had an exceptional copy of the old Canon 18-55 non-IS)
* Corner sharpness is noticeably lower than center sharpness
* Heavy

These were taken in my backyard and have not been retouched at all. So some of the exposures are not exactly right, white balance might be a bit off, etc. I did not want to damage the purity of the images as the lens saw them. The shots were all taken on a tripod, using a delayed exposure (completely hands-off), using AF. I also took shots using MF but didn't do any better on a consistent basis - I will say the comparisons themselves were the same (the "winner" at any given aperture did not change based on whether I used AF or MF). The Canon lens used as a comparison is the 18-55 non-IS kit lens, which might have some slight differences to the IS version beyond the obvious, but they perform similarly in the tests I've seen. But you can keep that in mind, at least.

My thoughts on what the shots show are below.

Clicking the thumbnails will take you to that image on Photobucket, where you can view them at 100% full size (just click anywhere on the image once it opens in Photobucket). I know, kind of clunky to compare shots, but that's why God invented tabbed browsing :)

Sigma @ 18mm f/5.6:

Canon @ 18mm f/5.6

Sigma @ 50mm f/5.6

Canon @ 55mm f/5.6

Sigma @ 18mm f/8

Canon @ 18mm f/8

Sigma @ 50mm f/8

Canon @ 55mm f/8

Sigma @ 18mm f/11

Canon @ 18mm f/11

Sigma @ 50mm f/11

Canon @ 55mm f/11

Sigma @ 50mm f/8

Canon @ 55mm f/8

Now, the stuff I know a lot of you guys are waiting for - a couple of wide open aperture shots. Clearly the Sigma lens is not as sharp there, but my thoughts on that after the photos.

Sigma @ 18mm f/2.8

Sigma @ 18mm f/2.8

Sigma @ 18mm f/3.5

The interesting thing is how much sharper the Sigma lens is at f/3.5 than f/2.8. It's almost like they designed the lens for 3.5 and then just widened it to give it better specs, even though the lens is obviously not happy about it. (I'm not sure if that's really possible.)

One thing I will say is that you would obviously only be using f/2.8 in low light handheld situations, which this really was not. In low light when shooting handheld, you're going to be a lot more satisfied with "acceptable sharpness", especially from a consumer level lens. With a lens that has no OS and can only open up to f/3.5, you will have a hard time shooting handheld even acceptably in low light. With this lens, the f/2.8 coupled with the OS gives you the ability to shoot in very low light without unnecessary blur from camera shake, although you will not get "tack sharp" images out of it no matter what you do at that aperture.

Sigma @ 50mm f/4.5

Compare to the similar shot above. Again, it is noticeably softer at 4.5 at this end of the zoom than at f/8 or f/11, which is really its sweet spot.

Generally I am really happy with this lens, and if you look at the overall lens market, I think Sigma did what they needed to do here. This is not an EX lens designed to compete with Sigma's own 18-50 f/2.8. It is designed more to fill a hole just above Canon's cheap 18-55mm kit lens, and it costs about $100 more. The optical quality of the two lenses is about equivalent - the Sigma may be slightly sharper in the center at certain apertures, the Canon better in the corners.

For that extra $100, though, you are getting much better build quality, an included lens hood, a non-telescoping zoom, a non-rotating front element, and (from what I've read, at least), more capable image stabilization. You're also getting a wider aperture, though whether or not that's really useful given the performance is up to you (though I know I will be happy to have it when I need it). I personally think all of that is easily worth the extra cost over the Canon lens.

The other major difference between the Canon and Sigma lenses are that the Canon seems to be at its best at f/5.6, whereas the Sigma is at its best at f/8 or f/11. A lot of people will find the Canon sweet spot to be more useful in more situations, and I don't disagree with that. It's kind of odd - and my one real criticism of the Sigma lens - that its specs suggest it is designed for low light, but it's really happiest in bright light. Still, that isn't unusual for Sigma, who often seem to design their lenses this way.

Summing up, I can highly recommend this lens given the price, but you shouldn't be expecting EX (and certainly not Canon L class!) performance. It is what it is - a better quality alternative to Canon's 18-55 IS.

Don't look down...

Taken with my brand new Sigma 18-50mm F2.8-4.5 DC OS lens (not yet available outside of Japan)...

Japan Trip 2009: an interesting few days...

This was always going to be a combined business trip and vacation. But since we've been in Tokyo, it's actually been almost all business. It's been fun, but completely exhausting, and I honestly feel physically beaten up by now. (The last is actually not new; every time I visit Tokyo, I'm full of bumps, bruises and scrapes by the time we leave.)

The Japanese way of doing business is completely alien to me; interesting and logical in its own way, but I understand now why it sometimes takes so long for products to make their way from one country to another, and for deals to get made.

We've had several meetings this week that all involve nothing more than setting up wholesale accounts to buy and sell products. In the United States, this is a simple transaction in which documents are exchanged and, if everything's in order, a contract signed and an account opened. The whole thing can be done by email and fax in about ten minutes.

In Japan, business deals are made not based on legal documents but on trust. A simple faxed contract transaction in the United States is a sit-down meeting in Japan, usually with top executives at the company. These play out like job interviews and are no less stressful. There is a lot of gamesmanship, of feeling each other out, trying to ask the right questions and give the right answers without giving all your secrets away (or the secrets of any of the other companies you're talking to).

I think, in the end, that it probably comes down to what sort of feeling the guy on the other side gets about you.

I got the sense, sitting through all these meetings, that a long time ago somebody from Honda, or Sony, or Canon or whatever other Japanese company you could think of had exactly this same sort of meeting with somebody from the United States who was trying to convince them to sell their products in America.

We had a pretty good batting average on this trip but I won't say it was a perfect 1.000 (update: yes it was). I will say that the gamesmanship still continues, so I can't give away what our real success rate was. I'll also say that we got a better feeling ourselves about some companies than others, though no doubt things can and will change over time. The Japanese business mentality is interesting as far as what their concerns are and how they see their place in the world. I've known this for some time, probably ever since I talked to the people who run the Nakayama Doll Company in Kyoto, which has been in business with one main store for 500 years now. Who needs growth? Who needs expansion? Why rock the boat?

And after all, deals are closed without so much as a signature. It's a question of loyalty. Loyalty can block some deals from happening and help seal others. But you must pledge your loyalty to at least some degree, and it's expected that anything you say out loud will be honored. A signature is not necessary.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: The view

This is the view from our hotel balcony(!) during the day (click through for the full effect):

Shinjuku Day Panorama

And at night, the view I'm looking at right now as I type this - again, clickable:

Shinjuku Night Panorama

That's Shinjuku, which has turned out to be a great place to stay.

The funny thing about panoramas is that because you get the same effect as an extreme wide-angle lens, everything looks really far away. In fact, those tall buildings loom pretty large and are only about 500 feet away. These are full 180 degree panoramas.

I'm going to write more about our hotel a little bit later - it is a great place. Just don't really have time to do a full writeup now, but I'll get to it.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: a question of priorities

We are obviously not traditional tourists. What's the first thing you do when you go to Tokyo?

See Star Trek, of course.

Some of the other things we've done so far:

* Gone shopping in Harajuku
* Gone to MOS Burger for a MOSdo burger
* Gone to McDonald's for a teriyaki burger and a deep fried pie
* Gone to a ramen shop
* Gone out drinking

Today and tomorrow, we're meeting with some Japanese clothing brands.

I'm gonna write about some of these things, plus our hotel and our flight, which was actually not that bad. Our hotel is pretty fabulous - I'm rendering out a couple of panoramas of the view right now, will post them later.

By the way, I liked Star Trek, but was surprised at how much like a regular TOS movie it seemed to me. I felt like I was watching Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock put together (especially as long as it was), but with a younger cast. It had a more modern look, but I was just expecting a little something more substantively different, given all the talk. This was regular old TOS Trek to me.

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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