Friday, March 29, 2013

Japan 2013 - the Preview

It's about that time again - in two weeks, I'll be heading back to Japan for my yearly trip to the country that's become like an adopted second home for me. Steel yourselves for another trip report!

I complained a little about this last time but after 13 years, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find new things to do in Tokyo. So this year's plans will also take my wife and I somewhere I've never been before.

Also, this will be my first time flying modern business class:

That's ANA's staggered business class (on a 787, but the 777 seats look the same). The only other time I've flown business class was on my second ever trip to Japan way back in 2000, when United upgraded me because I'm tall and I asked. Back then, though, business class was basically just a wider seat and more legroom, so it wasn't that great - I was seated in an exit row by the flight attendants, and it really wasn't much different than the exit rows I usually get in economy. On a side note, this was also the most turbulent flight of my life - I'm an experienced flier, but I nearly found religion on that flight. So it was hard to enjoy the business class benefits.

But this is different - just look at the menu, for one thing! And everyone gets their own little pod now, in 4 abreast seating. And of course, a flat bed. We booked this entirely on AMEX points and miles, so we just needed to pay the tax (which admittedly was still a lot - but less than half what an economy ticket costs). For once, I'm actually excited about my flight.

We still don't have a lot of concrete plans but some things we (well, I) am hoping to do:

I tried unsuccessfully to get tickets to see AKB48 last year, but Maeda Atsuko (one of the most popular members, kneeling right in front above) quit right in the middle of our trip - this was literally the top story on the news for the entire last week we were there. So I'm hoping their popularity has waned enough without her that we can get in. From what I've read, this is a uniquely Japanese experience, so I'm actually really hoping we win tickets.

There is literally no other music-related event that I'm interested in happening in the ten days I'll be in Japan, so it's AKB48 or bust.

Completely switching gears, although it still fits in with my otakudom:

Just like St. Maarten is one of the only places on Earth where you can actually be blown into the water by jet blast from departing commercial aircraft, Tokyo is one of the only places where you can actually tour a commercial airplane maintenance facility. Apparently you can get right up to the planes and almost touch them as they're being worked on. Just imagine this in the ultra-paranoid post-9/11 United States - you'd probably be arrested and thrown in a gulag just for suggesting it.

This is already booked. One of the few things we've gotten confirmed so far.

And since we've never been, we figured we may as well finally see this:

That's the Tsukiji fish market, probably the most famous fish market in the world. Restaurants in New York now even ship stuff from there and brag about it right on the menu - it's almost gotten to be like Kobe beef was in the early days (before the whole "Kobe style" thing started, and it became impossible again to find real Kobe beef here).  

Other than that, I have a feeling Tokyo's going to be a lot of shopping - music, musical instruments and maybe some things my wife wants too :)

But then! We're going to Okinawa.

We're staying at the Kafuu Resort Fuchaku Condo Hotel, which has pretty excellent reviews everywhere and was really reasonably priced all things considered (I think we are paying about $160 per night, which is much less than most resorts there). It also has absolutely enormous rooms, because they're not really hotel rooms, they are one-bedroom condos:

That's just the living room. To the right is apparently the bedroom, to the left is the kitchen.

I hope this place is really as good as it looks, but I've developed a reputation (among... my wife) as a highly skilled hotel picker, and there always seems to be one place that jumps off the page whenever I'm searching - one hotel that not only has some of the best amenities, but is also cheaper than even budget motels.  If I don't see that the first time I look, I just keep trying - eventually, some otherwise expensive hotel has some crazy rate that feels like winning the lottery.

I don't know much about Okinawa other than that there was a pretty terrible battle there and the weather's supposed to be nice most of the time. Oh, and the locals really don't like the federal government much. It sounds kinda like if Hawaii and Texas had a love child in the Pacific.

By the way, we are flying Japan Airlines "Class J" there:

Also all on miles - no cost at all! We're becoming quite the seasoned travelers, knowing all the little tricks.

Anyway, watch for my trip report next month! I'm sure we'll find more stuff to do.

Monday, March 11, 2013

SCANDAL at Osaka-Jo Hall

Yes, they're still a guilty pleasure of mine - if you can even call it that at this point. They are just a band I really like - it's hard to shake off the afterglow of a concert like that Budokan show! They're a great rock band, regardless of anything else.

Here they are at Osaka Jo-Hall, which is even bigger than Budokan and the arena they've dreamed of playing at since they were in school and they used to do street performances right outside:

Full concert. No HD on YouTube unfortunately, but there will be a disc, and yes, I'll be buying it. Those starting outfits may look goofy to westerners, but they're an intentional reference to their song "Space Ranger", which was the first song they ever played live, across the street. All their fans there would get it. They do change into some nicer black outfits pretty quickly.

Look at Tomomi crying during the first song.  Awwww...

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Adding a gold pickguard to a Fender Jazzmaster

Today, my American Jazzmaster looks like this:

Hawt. But let's look at how we got here, and why.

Until this weekend, this guitar looked like this:

I'll bet some people like this better, but I don't. It's a classic look, yeah, but not everything classic was better. I like tortoise shell pickguards on sunburst, but not on black. I got a black Jazzmaster knowing I'd eventually mod it. Mint looks pretty good too, but I already have a Jazzmaster with a mint pickguard, so I wanted something different.

I had black and gold in the back of my mind for a while. I didn't really know where the idea came from, until one day I remembered Tom Verlaine playing this at the 50th Anniversary Jazzmaster concert my wife and I went to a few years ago:

It was a Fender Custom Shop guitar made just for him - of 12 made for that concert, it was the only one in black. All the others were sunburst. This was my inspiration.

Here's what I used:

Allparts gold anodized aluminum pickguard, black plastic parts sourced from Ebay. The seller of the plastic parts claimed they were "all original Fender parts", but that can't possibly be true because they don't make black Jazzmaster pickup covers. I'm sure they're also Allparts. The knobs and tips might be Fender - they make these for Strats, which share some of the same parts.

Allparts is really the only decent source for a new American JM gold aluminum pickguard. Incidentally, this is what the very earliest Jazzmasters came with - not tort, gold. (But not the black ones, which came later. Still, everything looks better with gold.) The proper Jazzmaster pickguard material is metal.

Here's my old tort pickguard. Fender's reissue tortoise shell has gotten a lot better over the years. It's now pretty close to vintage in both color and figuring. Earlier reissue pickguards were like vomit. I'll keep this one around in case I ever want to put the guitar back to stock.

Underneath the pickguard with everything but the pickup covers removed. The blue tape is my own.

The distinctive AVRI pickups.

My guitar has to be one of the few AVRI's without a date on it anywhere. I hope this isn't a problem for me later on, but my neck date has been rubbed out (at the factory - you can still see a hint of it, but can't make out what it says) and all the other areas where dates can be written (pickguard shield, brass shielding tubs, etc.) are blank. I'm sure it's a 2012 but I have no idea why Fender would do this. They probably just forgot, or got lazy in the last year of production for these 1962 reissues.

First task is the new covers. Easy... these fit like a glove.

Next task is the pickguard itself. Unfortunately I had a couple issues with this pickguard.

Issue #1:

I noticed this gap down on the bridge side caused by the pickguard resting on top of the bridge thimbles. No amount of fiddling with it could get rid of this. I finally realized the problem was actually at the neck:

It's simply cut wrong. There's not enough space between the neck cutout and neck pickup. I tried sanding it, but this is a metal pickguard. Time to bring out the big gun...

I hated to do it, but sometimes you gotta get serious. I shaved off about 1/10" of metal near the neck - barely anything, but enough.

Issue #2: I didn't get pics of this, but the rhythm switch and roller knob bracket screws are threaded for a thicker pickguard, meaning these parts kind of just flop around if you don't shim them somehow - and they'll stick up too far if you get shorter screws. I got lucky and found a little pack of tiny rubber washers in my basement - I cut them in half lengthwise with a razor blade and that made them the perfect thickness and material to act as a shim underneath the pickguard.

Issue #3: I scratched the guitar all up with the pickguard while I was doing all this! I used some of my Guitar Scratch Remover polish to clean this up. This is a metal pickguard with sharp edges - it's like taking a box cutter to your guitar.

The last task is just replacing all the knobs and tips. The tips unscrew like nothing, and the knobs just press on. I didn't get the chrome Telecaster knobs like on the Tom Verlaine guitar, but I might someday. I kinda like actually having numbers, though.

The end result, once again:

Yessir, I like it. Now I feel like my American Jazzmaster is really mine. I feel a connection to it like I feel to my Japanese Jazzmaster.

UPDATE: I forgot to talk about one of the most important parts - grounding. Fail to properly ground your guitar and you will have loud buzzing. With a gold pickguard this is a little different - you don't need a pickguard shield at all, but you do need to scratch the anodizing off around the holes on the underside:

That's all I needed - it doesn't take much, but the anodizing acts as an insulator so to properly ground the pickguard and all components, they need to be touching bare metal.

I highly, highly recommend a multimeter to test for ground. They're $20 and easy to use. The main ground wire on American reissue Jazzmasters goes to the bridge thimble, so here I am testing the pickguard (on the part near the neck that I'd already sanded off earlier) going to the thimble. That confirms the pickguard itself is grounded.

Don't forget to check the jack, pots and switches too. On most Jazzmasters, the rhythm switch, for example, gets its ground from the pickguard shield. I just sanded under everything but the roller pots - that assembly has its own ground wire going to the shielding on my JM, so I left it alone. Once I was done, I tested everything with the multimeter, then rested the pickguard on the guitar, strung up one string and tested that everything worked properly through an amp. With that verified, I screwed everything back together and restrung.

Don't skip any steps!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Silk Road at Lincoln Center

Photo credit: Deccan Chronicle

I love Japan for its modern pop culture, but when it comes to ancient traditions and art, I'm actually a bigger fan of China. Traditional Chinese art forms are just indescribably beautiful, and while governments and political systems come and go, the Chinese have never lost their connection to their classical arts.

The world saw some of that in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies directed by Zhang Yimou (the film director responsible for modern classics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, among many others). I didn't realize it at the time but one of the featured dance routines at the ceremonies that year was taken from a modern classical production called Silk Road, about a father and daughter whose lives are changed forever by people they meet along the ancient trade route during the Tang dynasty.

Apparently it was during rehearsals for this segment that featured solo dancer Liu Yan fell and became paralyzed - a really sad story that I think about whenever anyone mentions these Olympics.  (If you're looking for an update about her - as I was after seeing this show - there's not much followup in the media but she does have a blog and Twitter-like Weibo account, and it looks like she's moving forward with her life. She is still paralyzed, though.)

This year, the Gansu Dance Theatre troupe - who apparently originated this show in 1979 - brought Silk Road to Lincoln Center for four shows only. My wife and I went last Saturday night. It was actually the Playbill that pointed out the appearance at the Olympics, or I'd probably have never made the connection. The dancer now playing the role of Yingniang is named Chen Chen (pictured above and at the top), and she was amazing.

The choreography she had to do was one thing, but honestly the thing that had the audience gasping was during the curtain call, when all the featured dancers did a little "kata"  (I don't know the Chinese word for this, but same concept). Hers involved lying on her stomach, raising her legs behind her head and performing an overhead vertical split (so her body was already bent 180 degrees), then rotating her legs - still in a full split - all the way around to the other side.  If you can't picture this, it's because it shouldn't be physically possible!  It looked like something that should instantly break a person's back and tear every ligament and muscle in their body, leaving them just a puddle of Jell-o.  But she did it, and really gracefully too I might add.

We sat in seats AA5-7 on the "Second Ring" of the David H. Koch theater, which are great seats if you can get them. Everybody always wants to sit in the orchestra section, but all you can see there are the dancers in front! From the second ring, you can see the entire stage, and on the side you're both closer than most people in the orchestra, and this particular section has only one row, which faces the stage. That means everybody has both a front row balcony seat and aisle access. I feel like I'm giving away a secret I'll regret later, but these seats are probably the best in the house. Did I mention they're also cheap?

Excuse my blurry-cam pics, but they told us no photos so every shot I got was kind of a slash and dash. This is the theater from our seats before the show. If you open up the full size, despite the blurriness you can see the same section on the other side and how it's laid out. The first ring directly below is probably also good, but there are two seats side by side so a) you need to be with somebody (I was), and b) one person's not going to have an unobstructed view.

Chinese classical dance is tangentially related to ballet (honestly I am not an expert; I am reporting what it looks like to me), but it's slower and more concerned with holding very precise, very difficult positions and with slow and elegant movements that make impossible body contortions look effortless. I am not a ballet person - I think it's very boring - but I can watch a Chinese classical dancer all day long. It is absolutely mesmerizing. It is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

Chen Chen again. This is also from the Deccan Chronicle. Convince yourself that she's actually standing in that photo, not jumping. Because she is standing, in that position. Try that yourself.

Here's the curtain call. I didn't take my own pics during the performance because seriously, it is not just against the rules but also incredibly rude. It's just not cool.

They did also come out to the orchestra area during the curtain call - this is the best shot I got:

I was kind of surprised there was not really a standing ovation, but it may be cultural - 90% of the crowd was actually Chinese. Man, I wish more Americans would come out for stuff like this - they don't know what they're missing! The Americans that were in the audience (other than me) were most of the ones standing up and being most vocal. The lead dancers did get a lot of hoots and hollers.

It is pretty cool to be able to see something like this direct from China itself. This was totally authentic; the real deal. And while the plot of the story itself is basically pure propaganda (it shows how China befriended the world through the Silk Road), in some ways that's almost part of the charm of it. It is unabashedly pro-China, as you'd expect something direct from China to be. It's like watching an American dance interpretation of Red Dawn if you were in China. This story and dance is how China defines itself.

(Note that there is something called the "Silk Road Dance Company" - I have no idea what that is. This is the Gansu Dance Theatre; they are not related.)

Next month we're going to see Shen Yun, another classical Chinese dance production, though one that seems to have been made for westerners by ex-pats (Silk Road was originally made for Chinese audiences). Apparently it's a bigger production, but we'll see how it compares in authenticity. I'm looking forward to it either way.

I couldn't find a video of Silk Road anywhere, so I'll leave you with the next best thing - the echo dance from House of Flying Daggers. There's a scene in Silk Road that seems like it probably inspired this scene in the movie, and of course my wife and I had to watch it again as soon as we got home. Zhang Ziyi was a classical dancer before she was an actress, and she uses those skills here:

St. Maarten trip report part 6 - the food!

St. Maarten doesn't just have some of the best beaches I've seen, it's also got some of the best food! And it's really got a little bit of everything, from beach bars to fine dining. In fact, we didn't realize it in advance but most people seem to think that St. Maarten's the go-to island for good eats in the Caribbean.

One thing we learned on St. Maarten is that you've got to get used to "Caribbean time" - a 15 minute wait before a server even takes your drink order is pretty normal. The service is almost universally sloooooooooow, unless you find a restaurant staffed by Europeans. Just sit back and relax and enjoy the beautiful weather.

We realized after leaving that the only meal on the entire trip that we ate indoors was at McDonald's. Literally every half-decent restaurant in St. Maarten is outdoors. There's no reason not to be - it's 80 degrees and clear about 95% of the time, including at night. Most restaurants do have roofs in case it rains, but no walls. Some don't even have roofs - if it does rain, you're gonna get wet!

Here's a rundown of some of the more memorable meals we had, organized by location:

Oyster Pond
Since our hotel was in this area, we did a lot of eating there. Our first meal on the island came courtesy of Big Fish, which lives up to its name - my mahi mahi was so big, I could barely finish it. (And yes, that's a lobster tail on top.)

Mahi mahi's local to St. Maarten and fresh caught. We asked the waitress where the other fish comes from, and she simply waved and said "someplace else".

We also met this little guy there (but did not eat him):

Since most restaurants don't have walls, you're liable to see all manner of wildlife in the restaurant itself.

In the same general area as Big Fish is Mr. Busby's Beach Bar/Daniel's by the Sea, where we fittingly ate our last meal on the island.

My wife and I shared our food - I had a crab baguette (which was probably "krab" with a "k", but it tasted fresh), and my wife ordered a jerk chicken sandwich. Probably the best jerk chicken I've personally eaten (though I can't say I have a huge sample size for comparison), and of course the view is tremendous.

A lot of restaurants are peppered around the sprawling town of Oyster Pond too - we also randomly ate at L'Oasis one night, which turned out to be a nice southern French place (where we maybe stupidly ordered Italian, because the pasta was cheaper than their French items).

Still, my wife's tagliatelle carbonara was probably the best carbonara I've ever tasted. HUGE pieces of panchetta, and tons of them.

Notice the bottle on the table - one thing about St. Maarten is that we were told repeatedly that you really don't want to drink the tap water. Restaurants don't serve water unless you ask, and then they give you a bottle (and charge you for it).

Grand Case
This is a tiny little densely packed beach town on the French side that's just wall to wall restaurants, and most of them (obviously) French.  Walk around a little early and most of the restaurant owners will be outside trying to convince you to come in - it's a really competitive area.  (That said, these are *not* cheap places to eat.)  Our first night there - well, the first night we managed to find a place to park - we decided on Le Tastevin because we saw empty tables at beachside from the open doors in front.

It was a great experience - I had a delicious onion soup (you know you're at a real French place when they just call it "onion soup"), grilled mahi mahi with a lemongrass sauce, and of course the creme brule.

Yes, that's a picture of me taking a picture of my creme brulee.

Amazing view from here as well, and the service was the best we had on the island - constant attention by the all-French wait staff!

On our second visit to the town, we wanted to try some real west Indian creole food at a "LOLO", which stands for "locally owned, locally operated".  St. Maarten is really two islands, and I don't mean the Dutch/French divide - I mean tourists see one side, locals quite another.  Most tourists never eat at real local places in the interior towns where most locals live, but there are two LOLOs in Grand Case that happen to be right next to each other, and both serve creole food.

We basically chose between them randomly.  The one we picked was Talk of the Town, though I later found out the place next door (called "Sky's the Limit" - who's coming up with these names?) is rated marginally higher on TripAdvisor.

I was happy to be able to try the lambi, which is a traditional Caribbean conch stew that I don't think I can get in New York.  Otherwise, though, the food here was just okay and the service was super, super-slow. (My food's actually in the background above - I had the lambi, grilled snapper and mac & cheese.)

On our way out we stopped and got some crepes from La Crepe en Rose, which is a guy running a street stand (I think his wife or possibly girlfriend or sister also runs it sometimes):

Kinda like Japan! Although the crepes themselves are very different - these are French-style crepes where the crepe is really the star, and you have to eat them with a knife and fork unless you want to get very, very messy.

We got Nutella crepes, because all the people ahead of us in line did. (Peer pressure!) My first time having Nutella crepes and holy crap, were they good.  Pardon my French.

This is kind of a weird marina city that's jam-packed full of cars but also strangely empty. The streets and shops have the feel of a "dead mall" but then you look out, and it's just wall to wall cars as far as the eye can see. It must be that all those people take boats to other places from the city, leaving their cars there and making it hard for people who actually want to use the city itself to park. (We had to park on the edge of town and walk back.)

Still, the one place we ate there (again randomly) was *really* good - a really authentic French bakery called Sarafina's.

I had one of their pre-made baguette sandwiches - prosciutto and mozzarella - but it was still one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. While we were there, we saw at least one woman come in and walk out with a person-sized paper sack full of baguettes - obviously this is where restaurateurs get their bread, and that's always a good sign.

Palm trees actually grow through the restaurant, right in front of the bakery case.

After the sandwich I got a couple of macarons - because I have to get French macarons any time I see them - and they were also delicious. Like a little meringue hamburger.

Other areas
I gotta mention the Sunset Bar and Grill again, which was our home base on Maho Beach and which probably anyone stumbling onto this post through Google as they plan a trip is going to want to visit. Their food is actually really not bad, although the portions are a little small:

That's a teriyaki chicken sandwich (minus one chicken strip that's sitting on the plate waiting for me to eat it) and in the background is my Dutch croquette sandwich. That croquette is literally the only Dutch food we found on the island. The French side really does have mostly French food; the Dutch side, on the other hand, has a mix of American, Italian, Chinese, some French, etc. Basically it's like being in a mid-size American city, as far as the choices go. But no Dutch!

Well, that about wraps it up - for this post and the trip report. We might go back next year around the same time - it was a nice break in our endless northeastern winter.

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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