Friday, April 27, 2012

Upgrading a cheap Strat - step one!

I love cheap but effective guitar upgrades, and this is definitely in that category.

A few years back, I bought a cheap $169 Squier Stratocaster for my wife and I to share as a "practice guitar" - she doesn't have another guitar with a tremolo and I just wanted a guitar I could beat up and not worry about.

We've never really been all that happy with it, though. Like a lot of cheap guitars, it looks and feels good when you first pick it up but it's just missing something, and I don't know what... that thing that makes you love a guitar, I guess, whatever that is. Mojo. It kind of looks and feels like a toy, for reasons I've never really been able to put my finger on - objectively, it's actually built a lot better than you'd expect a $170 guitar to be. (I did replace the weird, nasty green pickup covers and knobs the week I got it.) We rarely use it because it just doesn't feel right, to either of us.

I had figured part of it was its thin sound, both amped and unamped. Actually, amped it sounds ok if not very distinguished, but unamped it sounds like total cheez wiz. And I'm definitely a firm believer that a shitty sounding unamped electric guitar can only ever sound as good as its pickups when amped... and the pickups in this thing aren't great either. A guitar lacking resonance is just never going to have great sustain or depth, and will always sound thinner and hollower than it should when amped.

So I read up a bit and decided to do some upgrades - this was the first and most obvious:

Some of you are now nodding knowingly while the rest are saying "lol wut?"

That's the cheap zinc tremolo block built into Asian and Mexican Strats. If you're new to Strats and trying to figure out why yours sounds like shit too, this is part of the reason.

On most guitars, the bridge and/or tremolo assembly is the main thing that transfers the vibration of the strings to the body of the guitar, and that directly affects sustain. On the Strat, the bridge and tremolo are directly connected - they're screwed together to make a single assembly. The strings pass over the bridge saddles and down into the tremolo block. It's true that most of the string vibration is absorbed by the bridge saddles, but since the bridge and trem are all one piece, everything vibrates together.

I figured replacing that lightweight zinc block might not help a huge amount, but it certainly couldn't hurt.

To do this, you have to first remove your strings, then remove your bridge from the guitar by removing the springs from the back, then remove the saddles. Then you can unscrew the trem block from the bridge.

This is what that cheap block looks like when removed from the guitar:

This is the replacement trem block:

It's a GFS brass block. They make these in both steel and brass - reading between the lines, the description made it sound like if you need a little help, get steel, but if you think your guitar just sounds like shit, get brass. They also make them for US, Mexican and "Import" Strats - I bought the import version, since my Strat is made in China.

Here they are both together so you can directly compare:

The brass block really has a lot more mass. It will add probably about 8-10 ounces to the weight of your guitar. It's not only thicker, it's wider too. And made of heavy brass instead of zinc.

Installing the new block should be a straightforward process of reversing the removal of the old one, but in my case there were a couple complications that you might also run into.
  1. The body route was not wide enough for the new trem block - I just used a Dremel (the poor-man's router) to enlarge it. No, you can't see the imprecise edges - it's all hidden under the bridge.
  2. The tremolo arm hole didn't line up with the bridge - in fact, I had the hole pattern of a Mexican Strat in my Chinese guitar! That's the thing about Asian Strats - you really never know what you're gonna get. The hole was close enough that I could kind of force the arm in there and it seems ok.
  3. At GFS's insistence, I bought a US-sized trem arm, only to discover that my old trem block already had one! What?! This is a Chinese guitar. It seems like I actually just had a Mexican trem block.
Once the new trem block is in there, you just replace the springs and saddles, re-string it and you're in business. You will probably need to re-intonate too, unless you know the exact distance your saddles were screwed in before.

So how's the sound? Well, I can say it's most definitely better. It's still a little overly bright for my taste (next I'll try different strings), but when playing unamped, the guitar is louder and has much better sustain. There's definitely more resonance - I can feel the guitar vibrating against me now when I play. Previously, the only guitar I had that would do this was my Jazzmaster. The Strat is now just as loud and resonant when unamped as my Jazzmaster (though I still prefer the darker sound of the JM).

Does that translate to a better sound when amped? I think so. Obviously the pickups and electronics are most of the actual amped tone, but I can definitely hear the sustain and that translates to a perception of depth, because chords and notes aren't just falling off as soon as I hit them. The guitar just sounds alive, whereas before it sounded dead. So yes, it sounds better.

This is a $30 upgrade, so while you may not hear a dramatic difference while amped, it's something cheap that's worth doing if you've got a Squier or even Mexican Fender Strat with one of those pot metal blocks.

It looks cool too!

New amp day! And a little Ebay story.

A warning: this is the first of two more guitar-related posts coming up. (Yes, the Japan top 10 is still in the pipeline!)

I got my new amp!

Well, it's new to me anyway. It's a 2008 Fender Twin Reverb (as I previously hinted at buying), purchased on Ebay. The transaction ended up being a little painful as the seller obviously didn't know how to ship it and tried to add "packaging" costs onto the shipping charge after the auction had ended - essentially asking me to pay more than I had won the auction for. Not only against Ebay's TOS, but definitely shady if you ask me. This is definitely a heavy amp, but I ship stuff all the time, and I was able to look up the actual price to ship it through my UPS account, which was about $150 less than what he was asking me for. When I opened the box, I discovered why - he had asked the UPS Store to pack it for him rather than packing it himself, and they had used heavy blankets as packing material.

Basically, I was being asked to pay $150 for blankets, and the extra cost of shipping them - they weigh about 10 pounds by themselves! But I wasn't bidding on blankets; I was bidding on an amp, and he hadn't included the cost of blankets in his quoted shipping price. (Nor would I have bid on his auction if he had.)

We argued just a tiny bit but I ended up paying him what I had calculated the actual shipping cost as. It drives me a little crazy, though, that he never quite understood the issue - he thought I was taking $150 out of his pocket, and he's going to continue thinking that, that there's someone out there who stole $150 from him on his amp auction. That's going to kind of piss me off every time I look at this thing. He never understood that he was asking me to pay for his choice of using somebody else to pack the box for him, and long after he had entered the shipping price onto his auction page.

The amp itself is going to be great, but the seller also did not remove the tubes from it (as I asked) and now the reverb tube seems to be making noise, so I'll probably have to replace that. Blah! I made this (boring) video to ask about the reverb noise on a forum I read and that's the answer I got - feel free to tell me different if you know different:

I didn't record myself playing through it because I am frankly kind of embarrassed to do that when there are all these videos out there of random people playing like they're the second coming of Jimi Hendrix. People are going to laugh at me and my lack of skillz.

But the tone is amazing, and exactly what I wanted. I definitely can't overdrive it, I know that - in my house, I will mostly be playing with the volume set on 1. It's a loud amp. But it sounds great on 1, even though I'm not even stretching the legs on those 6L6 power tubes. I can use my Fender Blender clone for distortion (dialed back, it makes a great distortion instead of fuzz.) On a weekend day, maybe I'll get adventurous, shake the house, annoy the neighbors and crank it up to 2. I do still hope to play out someday, though, and then I can probably take it up to 3 or 4. Who wants to start a band??

(btw, there's a "this one goes to 11" joke in here somewhere, but I can't find it. I think on 11, though, this amp would probably wipe out half of the eastern seaboard.)

One thing I knew before buying it (and obviously, it was the reason for the shipping difficulty): this thing is heavy. I knew that fact but had to experience it before I really understood it. It's a backbreaker! You look at it and think "it's mostly hollow, and not really that big, how heavy could it be?" Then you try to pick it up and it's like "crack!" and just like that, your back is broken. So I'm writing this from my hospital bed...

Not really. But it's so heavy that I end up dragging it across the floor when I try to move it. First thing I did was put some heavy duty felt pads on the metal feet to move it easier without scratching the floor - I recommend this! It's like a piece of furniture. It is actually heavier than my couch. Maybe someday I'll get this ATA flight case so I can wheel it around with the top off.

Anyway, so yeah. Great amp, not a great buying experience. On the plus side, I did get it for $790, plus about $95 shipping. Compared to a new one, I saved about $400. Which seems about right.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Woohoo! Finally got this, after three years of searching:

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I found this used in Japan, but it was too expensive at 3980 yen. Apparently I need to update my knowledge - this is Amazon Japan:

Gah! Apparently 3,980 was a pretty good deal. 19,800 yen is approximately $250. They have blown up since the Budokan show. Even their latest CD, which is still in print, is selling for above its MSRP (and more than I paid for it).

This is BEST SCANDAL with the DVD, which is the only format I buy CD's in anymore. The regular CD version (no DVD) is expensive too, but not ridiculous like that.

I ended up paying $20 for mine.

Mine's the Hong Kong version, so ok, not technically comparable. But it's the same content and packaging, so I don't care.

Incidentally, part of the reason I'm writing this is to tell you I have a new camera (which I took the top picture with - sorry about the slight blurriness, still learning how to use it!), and I'll be writing about that very soon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guitar amp shopping - I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment

I'm going to take a break from my Japan stuff (still writing that top ten list!) to talk some more about my other big life obsession: guitars! And stuff that goes with them.

Photo by devkoDE

I'm shopping for a new amp. It's really hard! Maybe some of you are, or have been, in the same boat. Right now I only have a tiny little Marshall practice amp, and it's basically junk even for a practice amp. When I was younger and played bass in a band, I thought I knew a little more about amps than I do now - I had a Peavey and then an Ampeg bass amp, both solid state, but I always wanted a tube amp. One of my band's guitarists had a Marshall tube combo amp (I don't remember which one), and even though I didn't like that specific amp much, I did like the tube warmth and I've always liked the Marshall crunch. Marshall also makes a lot of amps with an overdrive channel so you can play distorted without blowing the house down from volume. In an ideal world, I would probably buy a Marshall combo amp that can do everything.

There seem to be two basic schools of thought with guitar amps - all else grows out of these two general approaches:

  1. The amp should be a jack of all trades, including all tones and effects you could ever want. You should never need to add another pedal to your setup; pedals just muddy the sound of the amp and add noise.
  2. The amp should do nothing but amplify, and provide a natural reference tone as the basis for whatever else you want to do. Any effects or tonal changes you want can and should be achieved with pedals.
Obviously two opposing viewpoints there, but it's why we have stuff like Line 6 solid state "modeling" amps and even Marshall type tube stuff with separate OD channel and effects loops on the one hand, and then things like Fender's vintage reissue line that basically have nothing extra but analog reverb on the other. Sure, some amps kind of straddle the line or end up in between the two extremes, but I think they still originally grew out of one of those two approaches.

I go back and forth on which camp I'm in and it's one reason why I'm having trouble picking out an amp. But if you're in the same boat as me, I think it would probably help to firmly plant yourself in one of those two schools and start looking from there. Do you want an amp that does everything, or do you want an amp that provides the cleanest, most natural tone that you can then add onto yourself?

You would think that by now, there would be an amp that can do everything and provide a really clean, natural reference tone. Well, maybe there is, but I haven't found it and I don't know many other guitarists who have either - otherwise the aforementioned Fender reissue line or even something like the Marshall Bluesbreaker would not continue to exist. Every amp that can do great distortion seems to sound like shit when played clean. Every amp that does modeling through transistors seems to sound really mechanical and thin. Most amps that sound great clean just won't ever break up into distortion, or only do so when REALLY loud. And it goes on like that. Amps that try to be jacks of all trades end up masters of none, it seems.

And you can always add distortion to a great-sounding clean amp. But it's really hard to fix up the clean sound of an amp that can't naturally do it.

Or at least, that's my opinion - and I guess that's putting me basically into that second camp. Which is why I'm probably gonna end up buying this:

The Fender Twin Reverb. I'm about 51% on this right now. Everybody says this is the reference amp for "the Fender sound" and the best clean amp in the business. I've heard it and I agree, it is the best sounding clean amp I've heard. And as top-end amps go these days, it's not really that expensive. A high-end Marshall or Orange amp will run up to $3,000; the Fender Twin costs about $1,400 new. Still probably overpriced, but not as bad as the competition. (If I buy one, I'll try to get it for less.)

I could still change my mind, especially if anyone's got any suggestions. In fact, originally I was looking at much lower-end amps in the $500-$600 range, but I just wasn't satisfied with any of the options. I had narrowed it down to the Vox AC15C1, Fender Blues Junior NOS, Marshall Haze 40, and Marshall Class 5 at that level. The Marshall Haze is an "everything" amp but it's built like junk and it sounds like crap clean. The Class 5 is built just as poorly although it's a much simpler amp; I did want reverb, though, and an amp that was loud enough to gig with clean before breaking up. The Vox... I dunno, I just don't like Vox, even though a lot of bands I like use their amps. By themselves, I feel like they just sound really compressed and weird.

I had almost settled on the Blues Junior but then had an epiphany and said "screw it, if I'm going to buy a Blues Junior, I may as well sell some stuff and get the Fender amp I really want." And that's the Twin Reverb. With the Twin Reverb, I feel like I'd be set for life. Plenty of bands I like play 15,000 seat arenas with a mic'd up Twin Reverb. (Of course, plenty of bands I like also play those same arenas with Marshall stacks.)

I do think there's a danger in overthinking this. A lot of really famous guitarists picked their gear based on either what was available to them cheap, or what their favorite bands played. And most of them stuck with the sounds they grew up with - if not the actual brands - as they got older and more famous. There wasn't a lot of thinking involved, at least initially, and a lot of the thought put into it later was on how to refine what they'd already achieved, not how to get an all-new sound. (I admit I'm biased by my favorite bands too - though there is also this, which is just a whole lotta Marshall.)

We'll see. I'll post an update when I actually buy something - who knows, maybe it'll be something I haven't even found yet!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Japan trip 3/2012 - the roundup

I love the blog format but it's annoying how there's no good way to organize things by tag in Blogger. (Clicking a tag just acts as a filter on the main blog page.) So now that I'm basically calling my latest Japan trip report done, here's my manual post roundup - now in forward chronological order:

And some extra posts:
I'm always a little sad to be done writing - the trip is really in the past now. And this was one of the more fun ones we've had. We did even more stuff too (I was actually there 8 1/2 days and took 1,183 pictures), but believe it or not, I don't write about everything!

If you're interested in these posts, keep checking back because next up is a top 10 list of everything I've ever done there, in 13 years worth of visits. At this point my wife and I have tried pretty much all the major tourist attractions (in Tokyo) and even many things off the beaten path, so I think it'll be useful for those planning a trip to see what's really worth it and what isn't.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Shining Sun

A little diversion while I write up my last couple trip report posts - I am obsessed with this song right now:

Now that I'm back in NYC I've basically forgotten about AKB48 and am listening to nothing but SCANDAL again. I haven't worn this DVD out yet (it's new to me!). I love it when bands play little-known b-sides that are basically throwaway pop songs and turn them into something great live...

(I just wish whoever captured this didn't cut off the beginning! It's not like there are a bunch of different versions of this clip around...)

This DVD feels like a whole other era compared with what I saw at Budokan, even though it was only 18 months ago... and I think I like this better.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Random thoughts and picture dump: Japan trip 3/2012

It's about time to just do a little cleanup - some little snippets of thoughts and photos I took over the past couple weeks that didn't fit anywhere else.

Apparently, "American cherries" are just black cherries. Still something funny about it to me.

Lots of these in the subway this time. Eventually they'll be all over Japan, to prevent scenes like this.

Why a picture of some random mall? It's not a mall, it's Haneda Airport! Actually one of the more impressive airports I've seen - way more interesting than Narita.

Do not taunt Crunky Ball.

Lots of these signs around Tokyo, to thank everyone for the support after the earthquake.
(I hadn't noticed the "no goods, no life" sign in the background until now.)

If I ever move to Tokyo, I want to live at the Hanzomon Bain-Douche.
That can't possibly be a name.

Some Japanese cities have these crazy streets that they've blocked off to traffic and stuck a roof over. They go on forever, and the weird thing is there are still cross streets going through this (still under the roof), with walk signals that you have to stop at. It's like being in a mall, and then all of a sudden there's a stoplight with cars coming at you.

One of Hiroshima's old streetcars - I love these things.

Mmmmmm, unlicensed Totoro cake.

This was a crazy bridge at Miyajima's shrine - how do you even use this?? The weird thing was there was absolutely no apparent reason it needed to be built this way - there was just flat land under it.

I showed Haneda airport's observation decks earlier; Narita has a couple as well. (This is not the best one.)

The Grand Prince Akasaka, which I've stayed at twice, is now a ghost hotel. Wonder what they're going to do with it.

The view, again, from our room at the Grand Arc Hanzomon. I love this view; it has everything you could hope to see in Tokyo. Tall buildings (for Tokyo), Tokyo Tower, even a moat. How many hotels give you a view of an honest to goodness moat?

My wife was impressed with the fact that Haneda airport's bathrooms have monitors in the stalls.

Of course I ate my share of McDonald's on the trip - that's how I know I'm in Japan! They still make the best teriyaki burgers. That's a little American Cherry Shake on the left. It was good!

My wife's Beverly Hills Burger was nasty, though. I tried it. Blecch! Avacado and egg do not belong together on a hamburger.

If this pic doesn't look crazy to you, look closer. This is basically an escalator... that's flat! It's like some sort of practical joke, or the beginning of a cartoon punch line.

You can get bagels in Japan, though they're weird. This is a green tea bagel.

You may have heard of Book-Off, Japan's big used bookstore chain. But now they have "Book-Off Bazaars", which have used everything. It's basically just a giant thrift store. This is now my favorite chain of stores in Japan. These are like the size of an average Wal-Mart, and all they have is used stuff of all kinds. It's like if Ebay opened a store.

Yes, that's me walking towards it. (I feel like this looks like a still image from a film about a terrorist who walks into a crowded store and mows everybody down with a machine gun.)

A couple other random thoughts:
  • I always forget how sick everybody constantly is in Japan. I don't just mean the number of people wearing masks, which is inflated right now because of radiation fears. I mean people actively hacking up mucus all over the place. It always seems to be about 40% of the population whenever I visit, and many of them don't wear masks. I now have a cough myself that I'm convinced I got from someone there.
  • This was my first trip to Japan where I didn't need three changes of clothes per day due to sweat. I've always gone in summer before. Everywhere felt a little weird to me as a result; there's a different energy in a city in early spring vs. late summer.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Japan Rail Pass and getting around: Japan Trip 3/2012

I actually love traveling within Japan - unlike the United States, they have not seemingly gone out of their way to make travel the worst experience possible, and consequently people in Japan travel more than we do. I don't generally fly domestically in Japan because it usually doesn't make much sense, but taking the train is fast, convenient, comfortable and really interesting. It's just pleasant, and even fun.

If you've ever gone or planned to go to Japan, then you probably know about the Japan Rail Pass, which gets you a free ride on most JR trains throughout the country, some buses and some ferries. A lot of people recommend it to all tourists as just a matter of course, but I actually don't think it makes financial sense most of the time. It's not cheap, and unless you're planning to visit two or more cities far apart in a short period of time, you're probably not going to make up the cost.

I've been to Japan about 12 times now but this was the first time using a Japan Rail Pass. The math just never worked out before. But we were planning to do a round trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and that alone makes a rail pass worth it since the ticket alone costs more than a rail pass.

So we bought a couple for ourselves, and with the savings, we upgraded to a Green Car rail pass.

Here are a couple tips for the rail pass right off the bat:
  • If you get one, maximize the value - stay at a hotel on a JR line (like the Yamanote line).
  • Buying a green car pass has added benefits, like fewer sold out trains (so you can book last minute).
  • Plan your expensive rail trips so they fall within the 7 or 14 day period the pass is valid.
  • You can select the date your pass validity starts; just tell the JR people when you get it, it doesn't have to start on the same date.
  • Remember that even with a Green Car pass, you can still only take the second express tier or below of shinkansen service.
When you buy a Japan Rail Pass, you first get this:

That's an exchange order; it looks kind of like an old paper airline ticket inside. This is not a rail pass! It will get you nowhere. When you get to Japan, you need to go to a JR ticket office in a major location like Narita Airport or Tokyo Station and exchange it for this:

That's a rail pass. It's pretty snazzy; makes a good souvenir (oh, but you will mess it up through use). Has an embossed metallic look to it. Not sure if that's just for the Green Car passes or if the ordinary ones look the same. (2015 update - see the bottom of the post for an answer to this!)

With the Japan Rail Pass, you can basically just hold your pass open and sail right on through any manned gate at any station. They really just look at the date (in my case, that's the "24 3 31"). For the shinkansen, you do still need to go to a ticket office and get a reserved ticket - though it is free. Japan Rail Passes are non-refundable and again, they are expensive, so I found myself holding onto mine like grim death most of the time. I was constantly checking to make sure I knew where it was.

Here I am with my "Tokaido Shinkansen Sandwich" in one hand and my rail pass in the other. I am holding the rail pass in about 85% of the pictures my wife took of me in Japan. That's about $450 in my right hand, I didn't want to lose it!

We got 7 day passes, which was kind of an issue because we were actually in Japan for 8 days. So we decided to start it on the 2nd day, knowing we'd be taking the shinkansen back from Hiroshima on the 8th day. That meant paying for our own transportation from Narita to Tokyo. JR operates the Narita Express (N'EX), but it's expensive if you have to actually pay for it like we did. We ended up taking the Keisei Skyliner, which runs a similar express route but terminates at Ueno (marginally less convenient) and costs half the price. It's a pretty cool train!

Kind of plasticky inside, but still comfortable. Japanese trains all have ridiculous seat pitch. They're shorter than we are on average but they love legroom.

Because our hotel was situated on the Hanzomon line, most of our traveling within Tokyo itself on this trip was actually via the subway - we chose a hotel we liked rather than one that would maximize the value of our rail pass.

Some people say the Tokyo subway is confusing, with its spaghetti-like tangle of lines, some of which are owned by different companies. I'm used to the NYC subway and find Tokyo's pretty easy, though. If you really aren't sure you can figure out a major subway system like this, it pays to just get a good guide book to carry around - because you'll be using it a lot. The subway is the primary way people get around in Tokyo, although you definitely can use JR lines more often if you pick the right hotel and want to use your rail pass.

Having a Japan Rail Pass opens up a new world of about a 300 mile radius around Tokyo to explore. That's how we ended up at the SC MAGLEV and Railway Park; that was an unscheduled day trip to Nagoya via shinkansen that we wouldn't have taken if not for the rail pass. With a rail pass, your constraint is no longer money but time, and the shinkansen trains are fast enough that you can travel a long way, do something in another city, then be back in Tokyo in time for dinner. That's something we hadn't considered on previous trips - it really does give you a lot more freedom.

Traveling by shinkansen in Japan is almost always a great experience. Every major city has a huge centrally located train station, often within walking distance of major hotel clusters. If you choose your hotel right, you can be in your room at 9AM and be on your shinkansen train for a day trip at 9:10. If you're hungry, you can buy a bento box like this directly on the platform:

They come in different types - you can even get sushi! These are made fresh every day, so you don't need to worry.

If you don't buy something at the station, there are car attendants that come through with food carts during the trip. They come through a little more often in the green cars.

There is no security to deal with, and the trains themselves run on time to the second (except when there's bad weather). Most of the time, the train is very quiet - especially if you get a green car. Ordinary cars come sometimes be a little raucus if there's alcohol around (and there often is), but usually the Japanese adhere to the societal norm that all train cars are considered "quiet cars". That means no cell phones, no music playing, no loud conversations.

A little story. On one of our legs this time, there was a group of four people a couple rows in front of us, all businessmen apparently working on the same project. Two were German and two were Japanese. The German guys were carrying on as if they were outside; I felt like I was part of their conversation, they were so loud. At one point, they stood up to talk over the backs of the seats to the Japanese people in their party, who were sitting in front of them. One of the Japanese guys actually ended up telling the Germans to basically sit down and shut up. (A little more politely than that, but that was definitely the gist.)  So, if you're planning a trip, just be aware that this is the custom in Japan. Traveling by train is a shared experience and you are not supposed to impose yourself onto others in the train. You will even hear announcements to that effect in English on most trains.

The seats on the shinkansen trains are extremely comfortable (a little moreso in the green cars), and as a 6'4" guy, I have no problem at all - there is plenty of room even to cross my legs. Like American trains (actually even moreso), the seats are actually much bigger than on airplanes so if you're used to seeing airplane seats, it's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo above - there is a lot of legroom. Trains are also designed so the windows exactly line up with the seats, so even though the newer trains have smaller windows, you're still not lacking for a view.

My big pet peeve with the green cars in some of the newer trains is the footrest, which you can't move out of the way and which takes up a lot of floor space. I think the whole idea of "footrests" is stupid - there is already a perfectly good footrest, it's called the floor. I don't see the point in raising my foot 6 inches higher. All the footrest ends up doing is making it so I can't fit my feet under the seat in front of me and really stretch my legs.

I didn't take pictures of it, but the new N700 trains all have power ports at every seat in the green cars, so you can plug in a laptop or charge your cell phone. The slightly older 700 series trains don't have this, but their footrests are slightly smaller so at least there's that. For you trainspotters out there, the Tokaido line is now pretty much entirely 700 and N700 trains, which is kind of boring, but if you go past Osaka, you'll still see the occasional 500 series or even earlier. On the Tokaido line, the N700 trains are mostly used on Nozomi services, so be prepared to deal without seat power if you're riding with a rail pass.

Yes, you do get some spectacular views from the train.

I'll close with just a little bit more about weather. Japanese trains have a deserved reputation for punctuality, but just beware that they do not run equally well rain or shine. In fact, three times now in my twelve or so trips to Japan, we've had major disruptions to our travel plans due to weather. At the end of our trip this time, a freak storm basically knocked out a bunch of lines around Tokyo, including the Joban Line we were trying to take to Sanuki station about 60 miles north. Shinkansen service was also delayed. My wife said it was her worst train experience ever in Japan; we were literally sitting motionless on a train that never left the station for an hour. We then switched to another train that was announced as leaving next, but didn't. We switched to a third and finally got as far as Toride before the train terminated. We had to drive the rest of the way.

If you by chance read my "soundtrack to Japan" post, the pics I took of the AKB48 omiyage box at the end of that post were just me killing time sitting on a stuck Joban Line train. It does happen, even in Japan.

2015 UPDATE: Here's an "ordinary" car rail pass:

No embossing, no metallic paint. Just plain matte paper. Not nearly as cool! My wife thinks they just changed all the passes, and I concede it's been a few years since the rest of this post. But I think there probably is a difference between the green and ordinary passes.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Miyajima Island and Hiroshima Castle: Japan 3/2012 Day 7

I wrote earlier that there's not really a lot for tourists to do in Hiroshima besides visit the Peace Park, but one thing that's almost another obligation is Miyajima. This island is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine with its "floating" bridges and main island gate, and you see pictures of it all over the place any time someone wants to show a stock view of ancient or traditional Japan. (I believe the gate is even featured in one of Windows 7's default desktop wallpapers.) People will think you're an idiot if you go to Hiroshima and don't visit Miyajima - it's the city's one big non-bomb related tourist attraction.

Getting to Miyajima requires either a very, very long streetcar ride or a slightly shorter ride on the JR Sanyo line, either one of which leaves from Hiroshima Station. Then you hop on the ferry for a short ride across the water to the island. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, the entire trip (including ferry) is free, unless you take the streetcar, in which case it does cost a little money. We actually took the JR line one way and the tram back, because we planned to visit the Peace Museum and Hiroshima Castle afterwards and the tram stops nearby.

The JR Miyajima ferry.

This is a Hiroshima streetcar, though not the one that takes you to Miyajima.
I just like the old ones better, so that's what I have pics of.

Because Miyajima is about an hour outside of Hiroshima City, it was apparently unaffected by the A-bomb. Few traditional temples and shrines in Japan have been untouched since being built, though - they've all been rebuilt multiple times just because they wear out. So even though things look old, and are by American standards, you're usually not seeing pre-medieval artifacts like you might expect. Most of what you see at Miyajima is only a couple hundred years old at most, and some areas are brand new or even under renovation right now. (Hey, it's a wood shrine that's partially submerged in saltwater for half the day; it's not going to last forever.) Just look at the floor boards and railings in the pics below, and of course there's constant painting going on.

Souvenir ticket.

Miyajima's big claim to fame is that its shrine appears to be floating in the water during high tide. Unfortunately for us, we visited during low tide so the illusion was kind of lost on us - its buildings are built on stilts on landfill. It's still a beautiful shrine.

Walking around Miyajima is almost like being in a petting zoo. Deer are considered sacred and there are many of them on the island - and they are used to humans. They will walk right up to you if they're hungry (and they do want your food), and if they're relaxing, they will stay in place if you approach. And yes, you can pet them - although we didn't, because the island is very dusty and many times the deer seemed to be laying in their own poop. We saw plenty of other people petting them, though.

Like at a lot of the more touristy temples and shrines in Japan, there's a cottage industry of souvenir shops and food stalls that have popped up around the island. I'm kind of ambivalent about this. On the one hand, most of what they sell is cheap junk and "Hello Kitty Miyajima" merchandise. On the other, there is food like this:

Oysters, which are a Hiroshima specialty. My wife said these were the best she had ever had.
Not a big oyster eater myself.

Deep fried momiji-manju on a stick! These were soooooooooooo good.

Momiji-manju are another regional specialty - basically a soft maple leaf shaped little pastry stuffed with some sort of gel-like sweet substance. Traditionally it's azuki bean but these days you can get them with chocolate, custard, cheese and a bunch of other things. You can get them all over Hiroshima. Honestly, I can't really recommend one place over another - they all seem pretty good. We only saw the deep-fried ones on Miyajima Island, though. This is their version of a deep-fried Twinkie.

Regular (baked) momiji-manju.

Momiji-manju making machine. You can watch them bake right there, then eat them.

On our way back, we hit the Peace Museum (already written about), the big Book-Off that Hiroshima has, and then Hiroshima Castle. We actually just missed going into the castle - it closed right when we got there - but we saw it from the outside and walked around the grounds.

That is actually the guy inside closing the door to the castle for the day.

Hiroshima Castle is a replica of the original, which was destroyed in the atomic bombing. Many of the buildings on the grounds have just been left as ghostly foundations, but the castle itself was rebuilt in its original style, as were the main gates.

The bridge going into the castle grounds was obviously just rebuilt again, and it's really interesting to see brand new construction in the old world style. Japan is a really modern country but there is a lot of ancient knowledge that has never been lost, and they still know how to do things the same way their ancient ancestors did. I feel like this is actually important - this adds something to the cultural psyche that we in America just don't have. Japan has strong ties to the values and traditions that formed the country thousands of years ago (for better and worse), and this gives them a kind of cultural stability that the United States lacks. We as Americans have no shared cultural foundation; we're still making it up as we go along, constantly searching for something to bind us and increasingly not finding it. I guess this is why Japan makes sense to me in a way that America doesn't.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped for more ramen at the train station:

It was similar to the ramen I'd had the night before. Very thin noodles, Hiroshima style. Nothing on this trip compared to the best ramen I'd had on previous trips, though.

This was basically the end of the vacation part of the trip. The next day we headed back to Tokyo, then off to do some family stuff for a couple days before heading back to New York. This won't be my last post, though - I've still got a few posts on particular topics and then a random roundup post I'd like to do, so still a few more coming!

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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