Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Canon SD940IS - how I video'd Japan

I want to just take a little break from my Japan posts to talk about this little champ:

It's the Canon SD940IS, and it's the camera I used both to take the videos you saw in this post, as well as all of the videos we shot for our store blog while in Japan, including brand introductions from some pretty famous celebrities in the Japanese fashion world.

We bought it just before leaving specifically for this purpose, but thinking it'd be kind of a poor-man's solution to the problem of shooting high quality video.  It's a 12.1 megapixel camera that shoots HD video (720p), but it's got a tiny little pocket-cam sensor.  And it's a tiny camera - about the length and width of a credit card, and about a half inch thick.  Any smaller and I'd probably have a hard time even using it.  So we weren't expecting professional results.

But we damn near got it.  I didn't trust the memory card I'd bought (which I discovered post-purchase has a ridiculous failure rate) so my brother-in-law lent us his Panasonic 1080p HD camcorder - not really a professional piece of equipment, but very similar to one that we were given to shoot a segment for Japanese television with a few months ago.  We ended up shooting all of our brand introduction videos twice, once using the SD940IS and again with the HD camcorder, and guess which videos we ended up using?

In every case, the SD940IS videos looked more vivid and better exposed.  The camcorder videos were all very dark in the foreground, and overly bright in the background.  (Using the camcorder's built-in light just made everything look unnatural, like using on-camera flash in still photography.)  The sound quality was better from the SD940IS too.  True, the camcorder was 1080p and would have looked clearer on a large screen, but overall it would have taken me a lot of work to get the camcorder videos to look as good as those that came straight out of the SD940IS.

The image stabilization worked great too - I found it very easy to get that SteadiCam look just by standing still and holding the camera as steady as I could.  Take a look at any of the videos here - I know the subject matter is not exactly mainstream, and the videos are resized and re-compressed for streaming, but you can easily see the effect of the stabilization in all of them.  I used no special effort - just regular handholding at a normal distance (using the LCD screen to frame).

YouTube recompresses even its HD videos, so if you want to see an original video out of the camera that's similar to one from my previous post here, you can download one temporarily here.  It's about 60MB.

As someone who grew up in the era when camcorders first hit the market, it's pretty amazing to think that a tiny little pocket camera like this can now take video that easily bests video from pro cameras 20 years ago, and that would probably be good enough for news program field reports even today.

I actually had to consciously try to convince myself to keep shooting, because I'm so used to pocket cams only taking 2 minutes of low quality video.  I found myself shutting it off unconsciously after 30 seconds or so, even though on an 8GB memory card, this thing will shoot 45 minutes of HD video.  (True, you do then have an 8GB file... and that adds up fast.)  The files it spits out are standard h.264 QuickTime files, so you can play them with QuickTime or edit them in pretty much any modern video editor.  (The camcorder we borrowed created Windows Media files, which worked fine for me too, but aren't really cross-platform.)

It also takes some pretty good pictures, including about half the ones you see in, again, this post (same post as the videos).  No, it's nowhere near the image quality level of my trusty old Rebel XT, but unless you blow things up to 1:1, you'll never notice.  Lens is good, sensor's good for a camera of this class, image processor is really good.  And it's very fast.

No complaints and highly recommended.  Very surprised and happy with the quality of this little camera.  Someday, all video's going to be shot on cameras like this.  (Or phones.)

By the way, we did stick out like a sore thumb using a black pocket camera in Japan. No one there uses black cameras. It's like wearing white sneakers in New York - it instantly brands you a tourist. Cameras there are silver, pink, purple, blue, or any other shade of neon or pastel color - never dull black.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tokyo to Osaka!

Tokyo and Osaka apparently have some sort of blood feud that's been going on for centuries, like an east coast/west coast thing.  People from Tokyo think people from Osaka are loud and rude and have a low class accent.  People from Osaka think people from Tokyo are stuck up and cold, and if somebody from Osaka lives in Tokyo long enough to lose their Osaka accent, they also lose all their street cred back home.  Osaka's a real working class city; Tokyo is cosmopolitan.

I had never been to Osaka before this trip, unless you want to count the 45 minutes I spent at Itami airport on the way to Kyoto two years ago.  (Kyoto's got its own distinct personality.)  But a couple of the brands our store carries are HQ'd there, so we thought we'd pay them a visit and get a feel for the city at the same time.

We took the shinkansen (aka the "bullet train"), like we did from Kyoto to Tokyo two trips ago.  I wouldn't fly this route by choice; there's no point.  By the time you deal with security and baggage claim and transportation to the airports, it's not even faster and it is much less enjoyable.

This is our train pulling into the station.

This was my first time to ride the brand-spanking new N700 shinkansen, though in all honesty, it feels like pretty much any other shinkansen train inside (I've previously ridden the 700 and 200 series).  It probably seems amazing to Americans with our piddly little Amtrak that's constantly fighting for survival, but once a shinkansen train is 15 years old, it's retired and replaced.  That means they're constantly updating and launching new trains.  The N700 is the latest, and it's got stuff like train-wide wi-fi and power outlets at every seat.  On the downside, with every new shinkansen the windows get smaller.  Not sure why, maybe wind resistance?  They look for any little non-aerodynamic thing on these trains...

If you've never ridden a shinkansen, they're pretty neat - very comfortable, even for a big goofy American like me, and even in standard class.  There's plenty of legroom.

Our train was packed, but very quiet (it's Japan!)

Like everywhere else, there's been some cost-cutting in the service; shinkansen trains used to have "restaurant cars", then a snack car, and now just a food cart that gets pushed through the passenger cars like on an airplane.  Still, it's something, and I was actually pretty happy about this!

I don't know, something about having a sandwich that's actually labeled in fancy script "Tokaido Shinkansen Sandwich" (click on the photo) strikes me as both a little funny and kind of a product of a bygone era.  I almost wanted to keep it as a souvenir!

The amazing thing about this sandwich?  I was really hungry, and by the time the food cart came through, they were out of sandwiches (or anything else of substance).  So you know what they did?  They called ahead to the next station (Nagoya) to get a sandwich ready for me.  As the train was pulling into the station, they were running to the train with my sandwich!  This is why I love Japan.

We also did get the famous view of Mt. Fuji, which we missed last time (there was a typhoon on our last shinkansen trip):

So it was a nice ride to Osaka, and I was almost disappointed when it ended.  It is really amazing how fast these trains are: 2 hours and 25 minutes to go the 342 miles from Tokyo to Osaka!  We were on the Nozomi super-express - other trains are slower and make more stops.

We stayed at the Hotel Hanshin, a perfectly good hotel that my wife was a little disappointed with, but probably only because she was comparing it with the amazingly huge rooms and panoramic views from the Grand Prince Akasaka that we've stayed at twice in Tokyo.  The Hotel Hanshin's big claim to fame is that it pipes in natural spring water for the shower and tub (you can switch to regular tap water, which I did - the spring water's naturally grey, and kinda scary).  It's also got some pretty good views, though - this is actually a stitched-together panorama from our room (hence some of the weird overlaps):

Blogger shrinks even the "original" size, but the real original of that photo is enormous.

We only had one day in Osaka, and half of that was spent meeting with our two clothing brands.  That left just a few hours to take in some sights.  We ended up eating some takoyaki (basically fried balls of chopped up octopus), which Osaka is famous for, from a place recommended by the president of one of our clothing brands.

The Takoyaki, and the place that served it to us.

Not really my thing, but my wife loved it, though neither of us were convinced the ones we got were actually cooked through.  We walked around American Village for a bit - nobody seems to know why this place is called that anymore (probably some post-war thing), but it's the closest thing Osaka has to a Harajuku or East Village.  And it does have a Statue of Liberty in the middle of it!

Osaka's got a long series of these covered pedestrian malls - they go on forever, you literally can't see the end when you're in it.  And they're goddamn packed, with seemingly no way out.  If you think Tokyo is crowded (I don't, particularly), this was way worse.

This bridge is apparently a big tourist spot, like Times Square.  Also there's a really famous crab place around the corner (you see the sign in a couple of those shots).  Lots of westerners around this place, very surprised to see that.  Though honestly, Kyoto had a far higher concentration of westerners than anywhere I've seen in Tokyo, and probably a lot of those same people pass through Osaka on the way there or back.

We made our way back to our hotel and really, that was pretty much it for Osaka from us.  I actually was a little disappointed - I didn't see a whole lot of food that looked all that different from Tokyo, it was mostly just as crowded as Tokyo (or more!) and to me, at least, the people seemed pretty much the same.  Maybe the one sort of uniquely Osaka experience we had was seeing a guy sitting in a heavily pimped-out Hummer getting either hassled by or bantering with a group of local police.

Of course, we did only spend a day there, and I'm intentionally not talking about any of our business stuff, which was really the highlight of the day.  So it was totally worth going - it's just our leisure time that was a bit lacking.

On the way back, we had a "Green Car" (on a somewhat older 700 series train), which is not called First Class for a reason, but it's the closest you can get on a shinkansen.  If they did call it FC I think a lot of people would be very angry at the level of service provided, but you do get wider seats (2+2 seating vs. 3+2 in a standard car), even a little more legroom (the seats are much bigger in the green cars, so it's deceptive by the photos trying to judge the legroom... just trust me on this), a footrest, and they definitely come through with that food cart a few more times than in the regular cars - and you get first dibs, so they're never out of anything.  It's also even quieter, since not as many people are willing to pony up the extra cash.  My wife was not sure it was worth it, but it's literally only about $25 more per person, so I wasn't disappointed.

Here's another video as our train left Osaka - you can see some of the city here (this, like the video above, is available in HD!):

It was a fun day trip, but I think next time we'll probably spend any extra time we have in Kyoto.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Evangelion figures - all of my nerddom in one single short post

This post has got it all: Japanophilia.  Action figures.  Anime.  It's a microcosm of all that makes me a humongous geek.  Well, most of what makes me a humongous geek.  There's more to it than just that.

If I lived in Japan, my house would be figures and statues from top to bottom.  They're everywhere there - you can't avoid them, and if you're at all inclined, it's just impossible to resist.  My house would look something like this.  Ok, that one's maybe a little creepy, with all the Sailor Moon.  But who am I to talk?  I'm inching up there in quantity and I don't even make much of an effort.

Besides Kit-Kat, the other thing Japan is obsessed with right now is Evangelion.  Actually, this has been going on for 15 years now, and they just keep milking this thing.  The second movie in the "Rebuild of Evangelion" quadrilogy was released on DVD and Blu-Ray just before we arrived, and it was being promoted all over the freakin' place.  That includes convenience store chain Lawson, which had a display at the front of the store where they were selling these little figures from the series for 435 yen - a little under $5.  I bought one.

The interesting thing is they don't tell you which figure is in the box.  It's a surprise.  There were five possibilities: Asuka Langley in her plugsuit, Asuka in a bathing suit, Rei Ayanami in her hospital gown, Shinji in his nerd clothes, and the new chick they created just for the Rebuild movies, whose name is apparently "Mari Illustrious Makinami".

Obviously everybody wants Asuka in the bathing suit.  Which means there are probably about two of them in the country.  Nobody wants Shinji, even though he's the main character.  There are probably about 50 million of those.

Surprise!  I got Mari.

It's pretty amazing the quality you get for five bucks at a convenience store.  She looks really good!  And she even came with a back support and a stand.  I really wanted to go back and buy like five more of these things, but we didn't have time.  Probably just as well - I probably would have gotten two Mari's and three Shinji's.  That's how they get you.

Last time I was there I got a Rei figure from a capsule machine - they were promoting the first movie at that time.  Also very good quality considering it cost 100 yen - about $1.10!

(She's supposed to be leaning up against a wall - there were a bunch of these and some of them fit together to make a little diorama, if you bought the rest.)  Yes, they are standing in front of a bunch of cookbooks in our kitchen.

At Shinjuku MaruiOne, where we visited one of the brands we carry in our store, they had little Evangelion displays on every single floor.  This is a life-size Rei Ayanami - she's about 5'3" tall.  We've got pictures of both of us posing with her too, but they're too embarrassing to post here!

Anyway, next post: a bit about Osaka.  First time there!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Japan's snooty McDonald's

One of the things I love to do whenever I go to Japan (and usually as soon as I step off the plane) is head to McDonald's for a teriyaki burger and a deep-fried apple pie like we used to have here up until the health nuts started forcing McD's to turn them into cardboard.  But I was shocked to find that McDonald's Japan has apparently deigned the deep-fried pie "low class" and now only serves them in "regular" McDonald's, not the hoity toity high class McDonald's that have been popping up all over Tokyo.

Look at this crap.  It was hard to get decent pics but just look at the decor and signage.  This is not the McDonald's I know.  I got several pies on my last trip at this very same McDonald's, but it's unrecognizable now.

Both of us were actually wondering why that electronic sign only displayed messages in English.  I guess it's because English is so classy!

It's like a goddamn Starbucks!  Or worse!

I did finally get me some deep-fried pie, but it was painful finding the "right" McDonald's.  I predict that by our next trip, they'll be gone.  That will be a sad, sad day.  Japan, oh how you've changed!

By the way, I don't remember if this was at McDonald's or not, but this apparently exists:

If you guys over there need any tips on living with your newfound obesity, we're the experts on it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Japan! Kit-Kat!


I went to Japan.  I didn't write about it here during the trip (like I usually do) because this was mostly a business trip and I really hardly did any touristy things this time, or even pop culture things.  But there are still a few things I want to write about.

First, did you know that Japan is a nation obsessed with Kit-Kat?  It's everywhere.  They don't eat a lot of western candy but they have taken in Kit-Kat as if it's their own, and not only that, but they seem to have developed it into some sort of experimental flavor testbed.  They are pushing the boundaries of what a person would find acceptable in a chocolate candy bar.  But it's fun!

The flavors I personally tried this time include, in order from most normal to weirdest (IMO), red chili, green tea, flan, soy sauce, wasabi, and corn.  Yes, corn flavored Kit-Kat.  Does it really taste like corn?  Yes!  It is... not my favorite Kit-Kat flavor.  (I had soy sauce Kit-Kat last time I went to Japan, and it's actually really good.  It's one of those salty/sweet combinations, like kettle corn or whatever.)  You can see some other flavors if you open up the picture nice and big.  Butter Almond sounds good!

We spent fifty freakin' dollars on Kit Kat at Narita Airport alone.

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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