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Lipstick on a pig

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For a while I had been planning on totally re-designing my website, since effectively things haven’t changed (aside from slight visual changes) since I first created this page and the accompanying blog. This was about 5 or 6 years ago.

I kind of got distracted and fell behind. Oops!

But anyway, as you can see, I finally got around to totally re-doing things. A lot of this had to do with Blogger phasing out support for FTP.  Since I had been relying on Blogger publishing via FTP to my server since 2003 when I initially set up the site, I was pretty much boned and had to find a different solution.  Eventually I decided to switch to the WordPress platform, using it not only for the blog but as a CMS for the entire site.  It took me a little while to find a theme that could be edited to my liking, then I had to take care of importing posts from the old Blogger – I never updated my Blogger platform like 4 years ago when they overhauled their system so I was seriously using some old technology.  On top of that, since I had been using old Blogger with Haloscan for comments, it was near impossible to transfer all my old comments over properly.  I’m still working on that.

As of now, the blog is pretty much completely moved to this new location.  I’m still working on adding back pictures, using Gallery2 as the management system.  I also kind of like the Lifestream plugin (my Lifestream), although right now there’s not much in it except for Tweets and a lot of Diggs.  There are of course still a lot of little bugs and things I’m going to work on over the next few weeks, but at least the page is mostly up and the systems are in place to make using this site (for me) easier.  I pretty much had to give myself a refresher/crash-course in basic HTML and PHP, so it was kind of a fun little project.

I’ll write a bit more about specific things I need to work on still, after the jump.  Yes, I can do that now.  Click on “continue reading” to see the rest of this post.

Biznass cards

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Had to get some business cards made for the new job; checked out the printing corner in Loft in Sogo, but they were mega expensive and it would take apparently 2 weeks or more. Instead, I went and looked online and found this site called Meishi Shop* (Japanese site) that can not only do it for cheaper, but easier and faster. They let you upload an Illustrator file with your own business card design, you choose the paper and quantity, and they ship it to you. Also, if you get your order in before 5PM, they guarantee next day shipment. Sounds good, right?

But wait! There’s more!

So Wednesday I put my order in at 6:14PM, and got the standard confirmation/”thank you for your order” e-mail. Then again at 6:49 they e-mail me saying my data file has been verified and they had started printing. At this point I was pretty happy, because service like that is not what I’ve come to expect, even living in Japan. It got better later at night when I checked my e-mail and had a message sent at 9:43PM saying my order has been shipped. Seriously. Less than 4 hours and my order was finished and shipped out.

Meishishop.com screenshot

My order arrived just a bit ago at about 11:45AM Thursday. 18 hours total from sending them my Illustrator file to having the Sagawa courier bring my finished cards to my door. Everything looks good; can’t say there was any room for disappointment with this shop. There’s like a 500 yen discount for new customers, so my order of 100 full-color double-sided business cards shipped only cost me 1180 yen. Awesome. If you’re (in Japan and) looking for some cheap business cards, this site is ridiculously good. And yes I realize this all sounds like some terrible endorsement, but I’m not being paid to say this. If I were, it would be a lot better and I’d use more words like mega, super, and kazowee.

*meishi (名刺) = business card

au one Mail – awesome idea

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I ended up going to bed a lot later than planned last night, even after spending the entire evening in my apartment taking care of random tasks that I’d been putting off for too long. I burned some TV series off my external HD to clear space, filled out a Yodobashi credit card app, organized some bills I need to pay, did some laundry, and downloaded Megaman 9. I even cleaned up my apartment a bit and hauled a whole bag of trash downstairs. It felt like I had accomplished a lot.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking for a little bit* that I need to get a new phone, since my old faithful Sony Ericsson W43S is getting a little worn out and can’t even do the simplest things like watch TV, view MS Word documents, or give me a root canal – which are all standards for the current generation of Japanese ultra-phones. Yes, after only using my phone for 2 years it has already been outdated more times than I would like to mention, with new features popping up on the market every day. A few months ago the iPhone came out here in Japan, and despite its awesomeness +5 appeal in the US, in Japan it sucks and I don’t even know anyone that has one. No, wait, there was one guy at my office who has one but he seemed to only be interested in listening to the radio. This entry isn’t about the iPhone, but yeah, compared to any typical Japanese handset the only thing Apple’s magic device has going for it is the touch-screen. There are so many features missing (even compared to my old-ass phone) that most people aren’t interested.

Oh yeah, so speaking of phones. When browsing the au (my carrier) catalog for information about current phone models and pricing plans, I leaned about this recent service called au one Mail. After following the easy instructions on my phone, I was all set up and simply amazed at what it does. It seems that au has partnered with Google to give au users a special Gmail account. The interface is just a rebranded Gmail, giving you an @auone.jp e-mail address that you can access from your PC or phone. But the best thing is that this new account can automatically keep a copy of every sent and received mail from your keitai. And since it’s Gmail, you have several gigs of space forever, and the ridiculously sweet search capabilities. This was exactly what I always wanted.
Click the pic for a bigger screenshot.

au oneメール最高だ!

If anyone else here on au wants help on how to set this up, let me know. It’s definitely nice to know that you can have an automatic backup of all the e-mails you send on your phone.

*about a year and a half

Thai Food and Movin’ on Up

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I’m sitting at home in the middle of what is the beginnings of a typhoon. We’ve already got pretty strong wind and horizontal rain so I think this might be less of a false alarm than what we had a few months ago. Either way, I got to go home from work an hour early so it’s all good. Supposedly the typhoon is going to directly hit us here in the Kanto area sometime early in the morning. I’m not holding my breath, although the way the storm is going it wouldn’t be totally surprising.

It’s been a pretty busy week. Last weekend especially I was running around a lot, mainly in preparation to move to a new apartment. I have a new place lined up in Chiba city, about 18 minutes by train north of where I’m at now. I’ll be closer to Tokyo as well. It’s a really nice, brand new apartment building that was just completed in April. Of course, it’s a Japanese apartment so it’s pretty tiny to American standards, but it’s a nice studio-type apartment that is at least a lot better than what I have now. The bathroom has a nice wide sink and a super toilet, and the shower is separate. What I have now is a “unit bath” where everything is in one tiny little room, so it will be nicer to have more space. The main room itself has hardwood flooring as opposed to carpet, a long balcony, and a much better closet than what I have now. I’m looking forward to moving in, although not looking forward to having to pack up all my stuff within the next few days.

While I was looking for an apartment, I started by using an Apaman Shop (アパマンショップ), which is like a major chain of realtors here in Japan. The guy there was nice and they have a handy search system where I could find apartments that fit my requirements. I actually checked out about 4 rooms with this place first, 2 of which were cheap but dirty and gross, and the other 2 which were nicer and of course more expensive. This last place actually came up on my second visit, and while it’s expensive, it’s brand new and has a decent location. Renting apartments in Japan is a pain because they have this BS system in place called “key money,” where you pretty much have to pay a month’s rent to the landlord as a gift for letting you live there. Then you have deposits, cleaning fees, and usually a month’s worth of realtor’s’ fees, meaning that it’s not out of question to have to pay 5 months of rent before you even move in. Most of this you won’t get back. This is even worse when, like me, you may very well only be living there for a few months. Luckily not only was this building I found brand new, but they had only 1 month’s deposit, no key money, and no cleaning fees. The place even included 1 month of free rent! There was, however, a 1-month’s realtor fee. Overall it was a good deal. However, I was trying to figure a way to make it even cheaper, so I just called the landlord’s company directly. I was able to get the same deal, but without any realtors fee, just by going direct to the source. As nice and helpful as they were, I have no allegiance to the Apaman Shop, especially when they want to charge me a full month’s rent just for them to fax my application form in for me. Yes, I’m very proud of this.

Last week finally did the lease and contract stuff, which required a lot of explanations in Japanese to me, as well as me writing my name in katakana and using my hanko stamp about a million times. Good thing I bought my handy-dandy automatic hanko stamper a few months ago.

I also decided to hire a moving company to haul all my belongings from Ichihara to Chiba. While I don’t really have that much stuff, especially furniture, I have enough that it wouldn’t be feasible to take it all on the train or anything, plus I don’t have any friends with moving vans or whatever to haul the big stuff like my bike. It’s just easier to pay some company to take all my stuff to the new place. I had a few online estimates, which weren’t so great because I didn’t know the correct names for all my furniture in Japanese. For example, I’ve got these 4-foot tall bookshelves. You would think that one of these would be called 本棚 (book shelf) when filling out the online estimate form. You would be wrong. It’s called a カラーボックス (color box). I have no idea at all where that comes from, but oh well. I had 2 companies just come to my apartment to give me an estimate. The first place gave me a 26,000 yen estimate, which was a bit pricey. The second place quoted me 37,000, which was even worse, but after some hardcore negotiations, I was able to haggle him down to 21,500. I think haggling is expected in this situation, but I was happy with the outcome nonetheless. I have to pack my small stuff by myself, but they provided all the boxes and tape and everything for me to do it. Then on Sunday they’ll come and pack up my closet and furniture, then move everything into a truck, take it to Chiba, and unload everything in my new apartment. I think it’s worth the money.

I’ll write more about the whole apartment renting/moving process later, but probably in a few weeks once things calm down. I’m moving this Sunday (provided the typhoon is gone, which it will be), then have to unpack and get settled in. I have a week of work, then on Saturday a school-wide Goodbye Party for me, and on Sunday a big barbecue party, then 2 days of work at my AEON school, training my replacement Andrew. Then I should have tons more free time.

Oh, if you think that everything in Japan has a cartoon mascot, you’re probably right. Check out my moving boxes, with the Sakai Moving mascot panda:

サカイ引越センター

Futon Potato

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Japanese TV for the most part is pretty bad. Right now the only shows that I am watching with at least some regularity are: Tadano Hitoshi on Friday nights, Kamen Rider Den-O usually downloaded, and Lincoln on Tuesday nights. They are, respectively, a drama about a badass corporate special agent, a kids superhero show, and a variety show with a bunch of famous comedians. The majority of the rest of Japanese TV is either news, bad dramas, or celebrities eating food and/or watching videos (often of other people eating food). This all means that when you need some audio visual entertainment at home, DVDs and the internet are invaluable. I brought over quite a few DVDs, including all of Arrested Development and 4 seasons of News Radio. I don’t want to know how many times I’ve watched those over and over. Anyways, I still watch quite a lot of TV, and also play a somewhat decent amount of video games in my free time. Today I figure I will share with you details on TV Links and Discas, two of the main ways I entertain myself with arguably meaningless visual entertainment.

First up is a recent goldmine of a site introduced to me by Mr. Nicholas Roberts. It is called, simply, TV Links (link). While it is very easy to explain what the site does, it is hard to express how amazingly useful and fun it is as a resource to watch a bunch of TV shows online. This is cool in itself, but when you are an American TV addict living in a country whose broadcast content contains mostly people eating and saying how good it is, cool becomes absolutely pants-wetting wonderful. While the videos are pretty much all hosted on sites like YouTube and DailyMotion, meaning the quality isn’t so great, the selection of shows and episodes makes up for it. TV Links does an excellent job of rounding up entire seasons and series into one handy place. You could watch a bunch of TV shows all the way through with this site. I’ve already watched a lot of Robot Chicken on there, as well as a ton of Seinfeld episodes. It’s a great site to waste a lot of time on. In addition to a great number of TV dramas, sitcoms, and reality shows, they also have a ton of cartoons and even Japanese anime shows. They even have Captain N!

Discas screenshotI also started using the Tsutaya Discas service this year (link). It’s an online-to-postal DVD rental service, similar to Netflix in the states. While I’ve been able to get a lot of DVDs for uh…backup purposes, and it’s still a really good service, there are a few things that keep Discas from being as amazingly awesome at Netflix was when I was using it last year. With Netflix, for about 20 bucks a month I was able to get 3 DVDs at a time, automatically sent to me as I returned them. Netflix had a good queue system that automatically sent movies to me as soon as others were returned. Discas works a bit differently. There are two main plans you can choose from, with many other variations of these two. The one I’m on, called the M plan, gives you unlimited movies, 2 at a time, for 2079 yen a month. That’s about the same price as my old Netflix plan, although you get only 2 discs at a time. However, the main complaint I have with this plan is that while you can have a list of DVDs to rent, they don’t automatically send anything. You have to manually select which movies are sent to you via the website every time. Also the other pain is that you don’t have priority over other users to get movies. If a movie is very popular and checked out a lot, for example, then you can’t check it out. You can wait until maybe one comes back and have it sent to you, I suppose, but usually I try to get movies sent as soon as they receive my last ones, meaning I never wait for a certain movie to get in stock. Still though, I have been able to get a lot of movies and am filling up my 100 yen shop plastic storage boxes like never before. The price really isn’t bad either, considering the cost of DVDs in Japan (most movies cost at least 3000 or 4000 yen new), and the slightly expensive cost to rent movies at a regular brick-and-mortar. I wasn’t inclined to buy DVDs in the states, so you can’t expect me to do it in Japan.

M plan flow chart!?The other plan that Discas offers, which is labeled as their most popular, is called the A plan. This one lets you queue movies, gives you priority, and even sends movies to you automatically. All this for 1974 yen; a lot different than the M plan I’m using, right? True, but the catch is that you don’t get unlimited rentals. There is a monthly limit of 8 discs. While this would be good for people who are renting just to watch movies every weekend, or casual renters who would usually stop by the video shop on the way home from work, this doesn’t really cut it for someone who will rent and backup movies with no intention of watching them for months. Oops. Overall, Discas is a good service and I’m definitely getting a lot of movies cheaper and more conveniently than if I would go to the actual video store. Just like Netflix, they send you movies in an envelope that converts into the postage-paid return envelope, thus you pay no shipping. A bit different is that they send you two at a time. Total time for shipping is about a day or two max either way, so I’m usually able to get around 2 or 3 shipments a week. Also, it’s interesting to note that while you send your movies back to Discas via the national postal service, they are actually sent to you by a courier (Sagawa Express, to be exact). I read a while back that it is actually cheaper in Japan now to send letters by one of the many private courier companies rather than by the post office. Interesting indeed.

Discas, being run by Tsutaya, the Japanese equivalent of Blockbuster, has a really good stock of movies, including American/other foreign ones, and their system works pretty well. I don’t like how every day their website seems to be under maintenance for an hour or two around 10AM, since this is the time I am waking up and getting ready to go to work, and is also when I would usually confirm some new movies to be sent to me. They also offer “Spot Rentals,” meaning you can override your monthly plan and limits, priorities, etc to rent a movie on the spot. You have to pay about an extra 500 yen, but it gets sent right to you, and is very comparable to going to a store and renting, especially considering you an get new releases.

If you’re living in Japan and want to give Discas a shot, they offer a free trial. I think you can try the M plan for two weeks, or you can try the A plan for a month.

Packing Tips

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Fodor’s Travel Wire has some pretty good tips for packing and saving space. I got the link for this off of Lifehacker, one of the sites I visit at least twice a day for random links and news. Figured it was pretty interesting and useful enough to re-post on my blog, since me and a bunch of people I know are going to be packing up for Japan in the next few months.

6 Tips for Wrinkle-Free Packing

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