Japan, Day 1: Arrival

Nov 11 2013

This was the beginning of my ten-day trip to Japan. I had planned to travel with a friend who’d been to Japan before, but his availability evaporated about a month ahead of time.

So I went alone. No tour guide, no backup. Just me, my wallet, and a small suitcase of clothes.

I had two flights to Japan: one to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and another to Narita. The flight to LAX was perfectly, blissfully uneventful. I worried about finding my gate at the huge LAX with only an hour between flights. We landed, I disembarked the plane, and stared directly at the gate for the Narita flight. It was directly opposite; literally twenty feet from one waiting area to another.

The gate was filled with non-Japanese Asians. I assume Japan is the cheapest hub between California and, say, Singapore or Seoul.

So I waited for an hour, watching a bleary-eyed man order two cups of coffee, and promptly spill one all over his jeans.

DreamlinerWe then proceeded to board a 787 Dreamliner to Japan. It was a beautiful plane: roomy and comfortable, even in coach. They even gave each passenger a commemorative pack of playing cards.

It’s a 13-hour flight from LAX to Narita. I slept fitfully, despite mild turbulence, and eventually gave up and flipped through the movie options. Thankfully, they had a wide variety of foreign films, all subtitled in English. I ended up watching a legitimately spooky Bollywood horror movie, Ek Thi Daayan, about Indian witches. Had a neat twist ending, too.

One advantage of a $1,500 plane ticket: the flight attendants fed us well, with mediocre but filling meals and snacks.

The plane touched down in Japan. I looked out the window eagerly, and I saw…an airport. Just like any other airport. I slumped back in my seat. I wanted this to be alien. I would have to wait.

I exited and looked around for two important things: an ATM and the Japan Rail desk. I needed the first so I could withdraw some yen for meals and such, and I needed the last for my Japan Rail Pass.

Quick spiel about the JR Pass, for those unfamiliar: Japan’s invested heavily in train infrastructure. The JR Pass gives you 7, 14, or 21 days of access to almost every rail line in Japan, including intra-city lines. However, to buy a JR Pass, you must purchase a voucher before your trip, receive it at home, take it with you to Japan, and trade it in for your actual JR Pass at a Japan Rail desk.

Narita Airport was full of Japanese, and lots of English. Every sign had English equivalents. So I headed through immigration–easy enough, despite the lone person processing non-Japanese visitors–and tried to find an ATM.

Fortunately, once I made it to the main concourse, I saw an ATM sign, and followed it to a couple of ATM machines. And sure enough, each one had an English button. Within a few minutes, I had 20,000 yen (about US$200) in my pocket, and I was looking around for the Japan Rail desk.

That was easy to find, too. I was beginning to feel that Japan was going to be easy. How wrong I was.

Getting the JR Pass was straightforward, though I had to stand in line for about 15 minutes to do so. Even so, as I approached the desk, a young woman in a uniform approached me and asked–in English!–if I was there for a JR Pass. I said, “yes,” and she guided me to the short form I needed to fill out.

At the desk, I got my JR Pass, and the clerk asked, “Where is your hotel?” I explained that I was staying in Tokyo, specifically Asakusa, and she asked me to wait for a moment. She printed out a train ticket for me, then pulled out a map and showed me the best route to Asakusa, which included two train lines and a subway ride. I later learned that this ticket was a special reserved seat on the super-express to Tokyo. She could have just let me take a regular train, which doesn’t require a ticket. How nice of her!

Following the English signs, I made my way to the train station, boarded the train, went to my seat…and it was occupied. I blinked, sat down next to the occupant, and looked at my ticket. I had arrived early, and I was on the previous train! Fortunately, the next stop was the other side of the terminal a few minutes away, so I hopped off and waited for my train.

As I waited, I looked around. About half a dozen people stood on this platform, waiting for the train. They were all Japanese. Zero ethnic diversity.

My train came, I hopped on board, and I settled in for a 1-hour train ride to Tokyo.

Rice paddies in JapanThe train zipped through tunnels for a few minutes, then exited to the outside…and suddenly I was in Japan. Rice paddies, dense forests, and quaint little villages surrounded the train as it hurtled towards the metropolis. I felt alone and a little homesick. I was in an alien world.

The train arrived in Tokyo station, at which point I had to switch to another line. Again, everything was in English, so while I spent half an hour trying to find the right sign and the right line, at least I never got really lost.

I hopped on the Yamanote Line north to Ueno, which was only 4 stops away. The train passed through Akihabara, a fact which I filed away for later. Upon arriving in Ueno, I had to find the subway line to Asakusa. The subways require their own ticket (not covered by the JR Pass), but fortunately, the ticket machines all have English instructions, too.

I finally found myself at Asakusa Station. I wasn’t sure exactly how to get to my hotel from there, so I followed the signs for the Information Desk. Either I followed them incorrectly or they were poorly posted, because I followed them right up a staircase, out an exit, to the streets of Tokyo.

And I was on an alien planet.

It’s hard to describe just how different Japan is. I’ve visited Bermuda, Ireland, England, and South Africa. They’re all different than America. This was wildly different. There was no English anywhere. Even the iconography is different.

I turned 180 degrees and descended back into the station, found a clerk, and asked (in Japanese) where I could find my hotel. He said “Ah,” grabbed a paper map, and showed me, using some basic English.

I took a breath, re-ascended the stairs, and made my way to my hotel. A few blocks away, I found it. My heart swelled, I entered, and I found myself in a familiar environment: front desk, smiling staff, tiny restaurant off to one side; the works. I introduced myself, in English–I had deliberately chosen hotels where the staff could speak English–and soon had my room key. A few minutes later, I stepped into my room.

First hotel roomThis was a Japanese-style double room, which meant that it was barely wider than the double bed. But it was mine for 4 nights. I settled in and collapsed onto the bed.

I was in Japan.

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The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells

Nov 04 2013

Complete Short Stories of H.G. WellsThere’s much to recommend curation.

If you’re not familiar with H.G. Wells, by the way, he wrote The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, amongst other classic SF novels.

He also wrote dozens of short stories in his life (Wikipedia maintains a list). His last short story was published over 50 years after the first. His skills undoubtedly improved over time, which highlights the central problem of this book: a lot of the stories are dull.

Let me describe two of them to illustrate Wells’s strengths and weaknesses:

In “The New Elixir,” an inventor and his companion test a potion that greatly accelerates their physical and mental processes, allowing them to functionally slow down time relative to their own experiences. They proceed to wander through a motionless park and play with the effects of this. They observe the tip of a cracked whip, and discover they cannot move too quickly or the friction of their clothing will catch fire.

As the elixir wears off, they return to their apartment, and…that’s it. The story ends. It’s a pure exploration story, interesting for the imaginative or curious, but dissatisfying as a narrative.

“The Valley of the Spiders” introduces us to a group of riders in the Old West, who are pursuing…well, something. The story is a tour de force of showing, not telling. There are no “As you know, Bob” passages. Instead, we glean context from passing references within dialogue. We slowly realize that we don’t like these men. Then they encounter a certain danger, and our sympathies shift. We may not like them, but we don’t want them to die like this. The story ends with a bang, on a characteristically ambiguous note. We know what happens, but we’re not exactly sure what it means. It left me breathless, with multiple strong images in my head.

That’s my primary memory of this book: Some forgettable stories, and some that leapt into my soul.

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My Studio Ghibli-inspired RPG

Nov 03 2013

The Whispering Road black-and-white coverFor the past few months, I’ve been working on one of my dream games: a tabletop role-playing game that simulates the otherworldly adventure stories of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I wanted a rule set that emulated the motivations and values of Miyazaki, that rewards co-operation and community. I’ve been playtesting it and tweaking it for months now.

Today, I sent a limited release of the game, The Whispering Road, to my patrons on Patreon.

The Wandering Road is ideal for introducing casual gamers to tabletop games, and also designed to be accessible for kids. There’s no adult language and all games can be completely non-violent. It’s a GM-less story game, which includes rules for creating characters and resolving conflicts. Characters are built from three pieces: an Archetype, a Need, and list of 5 Traits (the rules come with 4 Archetypes and 30 Traits to choose from; players define Needs collaboratively). There’s a 5-act story structure for simulating movie-like stories. This structure can even be abbreviated to 3 acts if you only have a couple of hours to play.

I haven’t released it to the public yet, because this game deserves beautiful art. I’ve contacted a few artists, and once I have some sample art from them, I plan to launch a Kickstarter for the art, and once I have that, I’ll release the game publicly.

If you’d like to try out The Whispering Road, let me know, and I’ll try to set up a time when we can play online. There are so many opportunities for video and audio gaming online (Skype, Google+ Hangouts, etc.).

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Reading News From Nowhere

Oct 07 2013

Claude Lorrain's "Harbour Scene at Sunset"

Claude Lorrain’s “Harbour Scene at Sunset”

Like many great books, William Morris’s News From Nowhere left me with several conflicting feelings.

In a sense, it’s a science fiction novel. The author awakes in a future several hundred years distant from his own time in the 1800’s. He discovers a gentle society of friendly, calm people who go about their daily lives in peace and comfort. Each pursues his or her interests in trade for daily bread.

He discovers that mankind has adopted complete communism, though it hews a bit closer to libertarianism. Everyone produces according to pleasure and takes according to need. Nobody owns anything.

Now, I grew up with plenty of objections to this. But he provides plenty of…if not counter-arguments, then explanations for why this might work.

He points out that few people will hoard items of no value. People want to satisfy their basic needs. So, make that easy. That gives people the mental space to consider higher, better things.

There’s some ugliness here. The author’s stand-in eventually stumbles on an old man who describes the intervening history, and he describes a nightmare of communist cells, revolution and blood in the streets. There are also massive General Strikes involving nearly every working person, lasting for days, while somehow they still find things to eat. Hmmm.

And yet…every time I put down the book, I felt like a better person. I felt like behaving the way those people do: helpful and thoughtful. They are always looking at their neighbors to see if help is needed. They are outwardly focused, motivated by the increase in beauty and health of their communities. Who wants to live surrounded by sick people and ugly buildings? Why not do something about that?

There are a few areas in which Morris can’t quite see beyond his own preconceptions. For example, while he admirable portrays women as just as intelligent and capable of art and conversation as men, every house he visits is tended by women, who do all the cooking and cleaning, because they are born with the disposition to enjoy domestic work.

But that’s quibbling. News From Nowhere arrested my attention and gave me a new perspective. While I still disagree with the need for the broader social conflicts Morris implied, I want to live in that world.

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The Independent Sixth Reader

Sep 30 2013

(Review. Elocution. We suck at this. Perhaps it’s time.)

I discovered this book in a dusty used bookstore off a major highway. The place was crammed with thousands and thousands of used books in every imaginable category, and deep in the back recesses of the store lay the gold mine: a whole case of books each over 100 years old.

I picked out The Independent Sixth Reader, an instructional book published in 1868. It’s the last book in a series of books on diction and public speaking, each one intended for a progressively older student. The first was aimed at young grade school children; this was aimed at adults.

While one might smirk at the author’s insistence on the absolute necessity of following its system exactly, the book does cover a wide variety of elements of speech, and does so in a logical order. The author leads the reader through exercises in reading aloud crisply and understanding how best to approach situations like words that begin and end with similar consonant sounds (such as “she began needling him”).

As I read, I was struck by a realization: we suck at this today. People around me slur their speech and mumble their words. I do, too.

Surely this is at least a little important. Imagine the frustration caused and time wasted by mis-heard speech.

Maybe it’s time we all learned better diction.

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Normal Blogging

Sep 23 2013

A little social media navel-gazing: I’m sick today, and in that frustrating middle on a bunch of projects.  Not that I have the energy to work on them, but at least I can stare, bleary-eyed, at my list of Projects between bathroom runs.

(And I do mean runs.)

I have a 40-page setting guide that I’ll release when my season 3 of the Monsters of the Shattered World podcast gets out of the editing stage, but it looks like that won’t happen before I leave for Japan next week. The guide itself is done except for adding the art and checking the document for layout issues, correct links, and the other half-dozen things that I always think will be quick but end up consuming hours.

I have a handful of tabletop games in various of playtesting or design. None of them are ready for release yet. Two are board games, several are role-playing games, and all of them I know just don’t work cleanly yet.

I’m watching various anime series this season (the silly and poignant WATATOME, the beautiful and unusual The Eccentric Family), none of which have wrapped yet.

And I really don’t want to start anything new. Heck, I’m already starting to feel some background anxiety about my trip to Japan.

I want to be making stuff. Which is silly, because I find it easy to make stuff. But when I look at any of these projects, they look like giant walls to climb. I’m stuck.

So. Time to make some macaroni and cheese and either read a book or make something, anything.

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The Surprising, Incredible Burt Wonderstone (review)

Sep 23 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This movie genuinely surprised me.

Besides the characters and story, this is a movie about stage magic. Its writers did a wise thing: they wrote a movie that’s primarily about a failing magician getting back into his game. It is secondarily a comedy.

This brings with it certain drawbacks. But let me get to that in a minute.

The film starts with two nerdy kids who face bullies. One of them discovers stage magic. It doesn’t really help with the bullies, but it gives the two something to focus on. They become engrossed in magic, and grow up to perform a stage show in Vegas.

And that’s precisely when I sat up. The film shows us one of their illusions, a dangerous substitution trick involving one of the characters being “hanged” from a scaffold. And, without calling attention to itself, the film shows us this illusion in one shot. In other words, Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi performed the actual trick.

So the makers of this film clearly harbor a certain respect for stage magic.

The film continues to show us how Carell’s character, Burt, has grown complacent with his success, which leads to a split in the double-act. Worse, this happens in the modern day, when interest in stage magic is at an all-time low.

Enter Jim Carrey, the most outrageous and most annoying thing in the movie.

I have great respect for Carrey, and he creates a wonderfully nasty villain here in an extreme street magician who, for example, cuts his cheek open to “find” a missing card. My problem lies in the sheer amount of time that he spends in front of the camera. He stands as a certain ethical foil to Carrell’s and Buscemi’s characters, as someone who uses magic to shock audiences instead of delight them.

He ends up directly competing for Burt’s position at the Vegas hotel, which leads to even more screen time. And the problem is that his tricks are shocking and disgusting. I didn’t want to see a lot of them, but the film kept giving us more and more of them.

The film already treads a fine line by focusing on a self-absorbed character who slowly learns to be less of a jerk. It’s hard to sit through 2/3 of a movie as you actively dislike the protagonist. And Carell is excellent at acting like a boil on the backside of mankind.

But as I wrote above, the cast and crew keep to an important central theme: these characters want to delight people. It keeps them sympathetic.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Alan Arkin’s wonderful role, but revealing it would spoil the movie. I will say that he’s magnetically irascible.

I happily watched the film to its end. It has heart.

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Suspense! (review)

Sep 16 2013

Suspense! banner

Suspense! banner

Daniel Solis is a brilliant game designer. He built one of my favorite RPGs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a free-wheeling story-telling game of young wuxia pilgrims flying around a fantasy world, getting into trouble and helping others. Its primary mechanic is Go stones.

He recently began demoing a new game called Suspense!, a headache-inducing card game. I was lucky enough to play it with him at PAX East I felt fascinated for about 3 games, then I desperately wanted to play something else.

You work to guess each game’s win condition based on the cards you have and the cards other players have revealed.

The game consists of a set of cards that each include a number and a win condition. One card is removed and placed faced-down in the center of the play area, while the rest are dealt to the players. The players then play cards in turn; once all played cards reach a certain value (which varies depending on the number of players), the match ends. The secret card in the middle of the play area is revealed, and the player who matches its victory condition gets whatever points it states.

The headaches come as you see what victory conditions are already revealed in the played cards. If you see “Highest number in play gets 2 points” on your opponent’s played card, you know that’s not the secret card. So now you don’t care to get the highest number in play.

Certain players will adore this game. It combines the guesswork of poker with the stark limitations of a known and rapidly diminishing field of possibilities. If you like the idea of playing a hand of poker that’s inside a logic puzzle, this will probably appeal to you!

That said, keeping track of the possibilities exhausted this novice player. This is not a game to spend hours playing on the first night!

As a bonus, Suspense! is styled with retro B-movie sayings (“What is the mad doctor’s secret?”) which keeps the game light.

You can download Suspense! today as a free PDF.

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The Power and the Glory (book review)

Sep 09 2013

The Power and the Glory coverThe Power and the Glory is a difficult novel.

It’s easy to read. Greene writes florid, powerful prose that pulled me into memorable situations. His characters are complex and multi-dimensional (meaning they often have multiple opposing beliefs and values).

This is about people caught in difficult, desperate situations. People who have made mistakes, and pay for them. People who are people. They’re not trying to be evil.

This is most clearly illustrated by its main character, an apostate priest (he fathered a child) trying to escape Tabasco, Mexico during a time of great religious persecution. If he’s caught, the authorities will shoot him.

He struggles through a landscape of abject poverty, of parents starving themselves so their children can survive. He is a failed priest just trying to escape, yet many people protect him…because he is a priest. Because he can do the Mass. He barely believes in the Mass any more, but he does it because the people clamor for it.

This appears like a simple bit of irony. It would be easy to dismiss the peoples’ reaction as superstition. No; the people find meaning in the sacraments. This religion is important. It’s more than empty words if people will die for it, and people do.

The whole novel is like this. Nothing is simple. Humans are complex. Some people are driven by obvious motivations, and react predictably…but they have other motivations, too.

These themes infuse a breathless, grinding journey through a beautiful, galling country of injustice and misery. There’s very little happiness here. There is a great deal of depth.

Greene left me exhausted, as though I had lived another life while reading The Power and the Glory. What better tribute?

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Pacific Rim (review)

Sep 02 2013

Pacific Rim poster

Pacific Rim poster

I’m trying to write out my thoughts on Pacific Rim without simply restating Sam Keeper’s information-dense article “The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim” at Storming the Ivory Tower. So maybe you want to check that out.

Worse, I’m about to make many over-generalizations about things about which I know more than the average American, but I’m far from an expert in.

I saw Pacific Rim. (That’s not the generalization.) Friends learned this, and asked me my opinion. I’ve struggled. I’ve called it a “big, dumb giant robot movie,” “mecha vs. Godzilla,” and “fundamentally a Godzilla film.”

Here’s the thing: Japanese films are rooted in a certain style of visual storytelling. From kamishibai to manga to anime, Japanese storytelling revolves around imagery. Even Japanese novels include a lot of visual imagery, compared to the Western focus on dialogue. (And the over-generalizations begin…) We are Greek; they are Chinese.

This carries over into live-action film. Japanese films are low on dialogue, because you’re supposed to look at the film and understand what’s going on. Contrast this with, say, the scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace when Anakin flies the fighter into the space battle. He suddenly gets very talkative, calling out practically everything in his head. Japanese films rarely do this.

Sadly, film criticism in America focuses on dialogue. If there’s not much dialogue, the critic assumes that the film’s either shallow or “arty.” Imagery is seen mainly as an enhancer of emotion: dramatic lighting heightens tension, but cannot move the story forward.

This blinds critics to the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Because the film’s imagery focuses on giant robots punching giant monsters, it’s not an art film, thus it’s shallow.

Note: this is not about “paying attention.” This is about a fundamental approach to conveying information, that most Westerners just don’t see, and that Asians do. This explains the furor over Western comic book panels that set mood but “don’t move the story forward.” It explains much of why Hong Kong cinema bores most Americans to tears; because they’re not looking for the same things Asian audiences are looking for.

So. Pacific Rim conveys a lot with background details, with character stances and facial reactions. The Jaegers all have different designs. Nobody in the film explains why, because you’re supposed to figure it out by looking at them. Mako Mori is quiet, so we are told her story without words. We don’t need dialogue to understand it; we need to see her fight.

This strangeness doubles with the theme of social cohesion, which is emphasized to an extent Western audiences rarely see. We focus on loners–Becket, Mori, Pentecost–an action movie cliché. But they succeed in the end when they synchronize with others or allow others to synchronize. They win, not because of their determination or their desire for vengeance, but because of their social bonds.

One can enjoy Pacific Rim purely as a super robot movie. It paces itself cleanly and hits all the right beats as an action movie.

But it is not merely an action movie.

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