Chuck's travels

Monday, August 22, 2005

Big quake, fun at disneyland and a digital camera

Somehow I never thought that earthquakes would take up so much time and space on my blog but it is happening that way. When I experienced the first quake, I thought – “ok it happens”. Then it was like – “ok it sometimes happens twice” … and then “thrice does for all … no more”. As of today, in the past month and a half I think we have experienced five earthquakes … or is it six? Today afternoon, there was a small one … I felt it but AB and SB didn’t … they told me later they saw on TV there had been another earthquake someplace … and I was like “guys, I felt it … and I am just a couple of floors below u”.

On Tuesday (August 16), we had the biggest of them all, as of now. We were in office on the 35th floor of the Shinjuku Park Towers building, and getting on with work … I remember I was standing and stretching my arms when SP said “guys … quake”. I couldn’t feel anything and I half wondered if SP was saying this just to scare us … now the entire bloody office knows the Indian guys r worried about quakes but SP is different … SP is Indian … so why should he make fun?

Then AB said “yeah I feel it” and still I couldn’t. “Still going on”, said SP and I concentrated hard on trying to feel what they were feeling. And suddenly, there was no need to try so hard at all. I could feel it without even trying … it was no ordinary tremor; the whole building seemed to be swaying and shaking. Soon, the room was shaking and trembling all over and I am not kidding when I say it wasn’t easy to stand still … it was like being on the deck of a ship in high seas … ok, maybe that was an exaggeration but it was hard to stand and be steady coz the entire building was swaying from one side to the other or that is how it felt. It kept on going for a long long time and I won’t deny that I was worried … earthquakes generally last some seconds and then stop … and I am not kidding when I say that the building kept shaking for about 5 minutes. Every minute or so, someone would say “damn, still not stopped” and then another minute later “still going on …. Yikes” and then again “man, when is this stopping?”. It wasn’t just us … almost everyone in office was exclaiming loudly in fear or astonishment … and with every sway, the building would make creaking noises … of course, it wasn’t the building creaking but all the fittings inside the hall that were creaking coz of the motion … but at that moment, the mind doesn’t work so sharply and it really seemed like the building was creaking. And then it slowed down …. And soon, we were stationary.

What is advised during times of quake is to get under the nearest table and stay there till it is over. One of us was ready to dive underneath and didn’t do so only coz the others were showing no signs of doing so … the human instinct of fear of being laughed at was stronger than the fear of the quake and while he looked longingly towards the underneath of the table and with fear all around the creaking and groaning room we were in, he didn’t dive in … said “lets go under the table” but when we didn’t respond, he didn’t either …. Poor guy! Probably he was the only sane guy among us … at least he had the idea of diving underneath. The rest of us were just frozen in fascination at the violence of the movement. We were on the 35th floor of a very well built building … there is a 5 star hotel (Hyatt, I think) from the 39th to 70th floor of the building … and to realize that we were swaying front and back meant our 70 floor building must be doing so too. Frankly, I was too amazed to be diving anywhere. Also, the fascination of it going on so long was there too … as I said we kept saying “still going on … damn, not stopped yet … man, this one is big; it hasn’t stopped still”.

Once everything was still, we noticed that everyone around us (all Japanese people) were looking mighty relieved … many of them were immediately connecting their browsers to sites where they would get information about the quake. How much was it, we asked a group of people huddled around a monitor … 4.0 was the answer. What the heck … 4.0 was creating all that hungama? Then we went back to our hall and obviously none of us went back to our work … all of us started surfing the net to find out the details … and I hit on it almost instantaneously … there was a small quake in the morning which we didn’t know anything about … and that one was 4.0 … the one we had just experienced hadn’t been updated yet … and within two minutes, we had it. 7.2 on the richter scale … a big one by any standards. In 1995, I think it was a 6.5 one that killed around 5000 people … of course the epicenter of the quake matters and this one was about 200 miles away from Tokyo and not on land … and still our building had shaken like a leaf.

As it happens, I guess this was a big test of the durability of the buildings they make here in Japan … the buildings are supposed to move with the quake … they are supposed to sway from the tremors and thus absorb the shocks with their movement … if they stand still, the tremors may break them. So by design, our 70 floored office building swayed with the quake and absorbed the shock … it wasn’t pleasant but I guess if it hadn’t swayed, there wouldn’t have been too much of the 70 floors remaining. 7.2 is no joke wherever the epicenter might be. That also explained why we felt the quake for so long – almost 5 minutes. The actual quake would probably have lasted much lesser but when the building started swaying to absorb the shock, it took time to get back to being stationary. I guess when we r talking about such a tall building, it can’t move and then become still at a touch of a button. It swayed … and swayed … and swayed a bit slower …and then slower still … and then stopped.

People in office looked pretty shaken up … as one guy put it, never had the office building moved like that before …. “u r very lucky to have experienced this”, one guy told us. Yeah, right … man, I feel lucky. Though admittedly, we were luckier than PR, the guy from Singapore who had arrived the same morning for some meetings related to our project … he was in a lift coming up to the 35th floor and as he put it – “everything was fine when I entered the lift … but as soon as it started to move upward, everything starting shaking and rattling … and I was like ‘let me out of here’”. In that tiny lift, it would have been scarier than it was in our big hall. Luckily for him, the lift continued all the way up and deposited him safely on the 35th floor.

Very surprisingly, there was minimal damage from the quake … in one place, an indoor swimming pool’s roof broke and injured the people swimming in the pool … but from damage point of view, that was it … yeah, trains were stopped and probably some damage here and there … but no loss of life and almost no damage to buildings anywhere. Amazing! Even after we went home and checked out our apartment, expecting things to have fallen here and there … nothing! Everything was as it was left in the morning … the TV didn’t fall off its shelf … neither did the microwave. Remember the last quake described by me in the camera shop … not one camera fell off its shelf … I guess when u live with quakes day in and day out, u learn to do things so unless there is something drastic, nothing happens.

There was a tsunami alert generated and there was a tiny tsunami that reached the shores of Japan … tiny enough not to do any damage.

Somehow I feel that when I leave Japan in around 40 days from now, I would have had enough quakes to last me for this lifetime. 6 odd quakes in the last month and a half and I guess another 3-4 before we leave! Man, this town is rocking.

It hasn’t all been about quakes in Japan … we been having some fun too. Three weeks back, we went to Tokyo Disneyland. I was surprised to know there r two Disney thingies here in Japan – one is Disneyland and the other is DisneySea. I never had heard of DisneySea before. Anyway, we went to Disneyland …. Reached there around 9 AM and stayed till about 7 PM. AB left at around 2 PM itself as he got a bad headache.

On the day of the Disneyland trip, we left our house at around 7:45 AM since the park opens at around 8 AM. We planned to leave early but u know how it happens. We had packed the lunch boxes we take daily to office … and had a couple of bottles of water. The previous day, I had looked up the route on the site (if the page that loads is in Japanese, look for a button saying “English”) and so following the directions given we caught a train from Gyo-Toku to Nishi-Funabashi on the Tozai line and there changed lines to the Musashino line. On the new line, the station for Disneyland is actually called “Maihama” station and it is around 10 minutes from Nishi-Funabashi. Overall from our house, it took less than half hour to reach Disneyland.

A note on the site we used to get the route – Really, these kind of sites are amazing. When I was in the Netherlands, I used the site to get around. These sites give u multiple options for getting from place A to place B and really, u don’t really have to know anything about the country … just take a printout of the directions given about trains and changing points and u r all set to travel. I am waiting for the day something like this is available in India. When I type “Akebonobashi” and “Hiroshima” as origin and destination at the Hyperdia site, it gives me various options for the journey including flight and the Bullet train options. Amazing!

Another note – I just mentioned Bullet trains, something Japan is famous for all over the world. Well, in Japan, they don’t say Bullet train. They say “Shinkansen”. So when u see the travel site and want to specify travel by Bullet train, choose “Shinkansen”.

Anyway … back to Disneyland. Man, the place was packed! It being Sunday, people were really out for a day of enjoyment … people everywhere … mostly families with kids sporting awed looks at seeing Mickey Mouse’s home … lots of couples … and a few stags, ourselves included. Ticket admission was 5500 yen per head and that included all attractions and rides inside Disneyland … so no standing around inside for tickets to this and that … just one ticket at the entrance and after that, the only time the wallet comes out is when u need to eat.

Roaming around Disneyland was like a dream … all these years u read of Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Cindrella and Snow White and suddenly u come to Disneyland where all of these characters are alive. The only complaint I have about this place is that they speak / write everything in Japanese. The first place we went to was called “Cindrella’s mystery castle” or something like that … a guide took us around a castle where everything was pitch dark and he kept on narrating something in Japanese … all round us, there were special effects with lighting and animation and it was all pretty cool. Our Japanese guide was a pleasant kind of a chap too, putting all his effort into his story telling and showing a nice set of expressions as he did so … fear, surprise, happiness etc. At one point of time, he jabbered something in Japanese and everyone laughed loudly … not wanting to be left behind, I laughed so loudly that for a minute, I wondered if I had understood his joke. Seriously, I remember when I was aboard a sightseeing boat on the Siene river in Paris, there was a French guide who was telling stories about the various tourist attractions we could see along the banks of the Siene. She first said everything in French … and then she repeated it in English. Seriously, when u know something like Disneyland is as much as a tourist attraction than a local attraction, there has to be a language factor planned into their calculations.

Anyway, we roamed around a lot that day. There was a boat ride on a huge steamer they called “Mark Twain’s steamboat” … there is a lake / water body going around in a circle somewhere in the heart of Disneyland and the boat takes a small round of that … generally takes around 15-20 mins to complete one round. Also did some canoeing in the same lake but the circle we took was smaller than for the steamboat. We also planned to go on a train ride that took people for a round around the Disney park. Initially, there was a lot of rush for this train ride thing and we took some “FastTrack” passes for the train. FastTrack is a concept by which you take a ticket that gives a certain time slot in the future (generally a couple of hours later) where u can just walk up and go in for a ride without waiting in lines. Else if u don’t want FastTrack, then just keep waiting in line and go when ur turn comes. However if u take the FastTrack pass, it gives u time to go elsewhere and do some other ride but u gotta be back in the time slot given in ur FastTrack pass … else they don’t allow u in. This FastTrack pass thing is a real time saver and doesn’t cost anything extra … but the catch is that u can only take one FastTrack pass at one time. Till the time the time period of ur first FastTrack pass starts, u cannot take a FastTrack pass for a different ride / attraction. We took our train ride FastTrack pass at around 11 AM and it gave us the time slot of 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM … so till that time we roamed around other places and came back later for the train ride. However AB wasn’t there since he left for home at around 2 PM.

The train ride was given as “Big Thunder Mountain” on the FastTrack ticket and I was wondering why they named a slow, old fashioned train ride such. It dawned on us when SB and I were waiting in line to finally go on the train … we had progressed almost more than half way into the line (and for that u have to go “inside” a tunnel) when we saw notices displaying the standard warnings of “This ride may be dangerous for people with high blood pressure … blah blah blah” and then we realized that this was no slow ride for old timers but some kind of roller coaster. SB immediately refused to go any further however much I tried to convince him and turned back to wrestle his way to the place where we had entered the tunnel … people must have been surprised coz everyone else was moving in the opposite direction … and they have barriers on either side of the queue to keep the queue orderly … so traveling back against the flow all the way to the entry point wouldn’t have been easy. Anyway so as it happened, I sat alone in the train (each seat can have two people … stags sit alone) and prayed to the almighty to let my lunch stay in my stomach. It wasn’t bad actually … the train went real fast and took plenty of curves at high speeds but the steepness of the up and down slopes wasn’t that bad … it is coming down the sleep slope part of roller coasters that I hate … and while it was there, it wasn’t bad. My lunch stayed in.

After that we went for the train ride we initially had planned on … the nice slow one aimed at people with grumpy stomachs … the two train rides were originating near each other and we had just taken the FastTrack pass for the wrong one. This time we got it right.

Earlier in the day, AB and I also went on another good ride called “Splash mountain” … u sit on a raft and it keeps moving along a tunnel of water built for the purpose … the motion of the raft is totally controlled by machinery … but at places, u have steep drops into pools of water and there the stomach goes “hupppppp”. The ride finally ended with the steepest drop of them all … which happens in a place visible from the outside as it serves as an advertisement for the ride. We had taken plenty of photos of this last steep drop from the outside but unless u have a pretty strong zoom, u cannot capture the people in the raft … but Disney went one better. They have strategically placed cameras inside the tunnel and at the point where the raft goes for its final steep drop …. And each raft is clicked at its point of drop … where people’s expressions r really worthy of being captured. I didn’t know this since all notices to this effect r written in Japanese and so while coming out, I was shocked to see myself on a photo on one wall, with eyes closed (I didn’t know I had done that … coz I remember seeing the drop before me as we went down … maybe I just closed them for one moment and that was the moment the photo was taken) and shouting away to glory as the raft tipped for the final drop. The cost of that one photograph was 1000 yen (400 rupees approx) but I just couldn’t resist buying it. SB refused to come for this ride either … just half hour earlier we had sat in a kiddie ride where there r many big tea cups placed on a circular rink … u sit in the cups (the three of us sat in one cup) and they start the machinery which make the cups zoom around all over the circular rink … obviously they don’t crash into each other since the machinery is handling it … but the people sitting in the cups have a wheel in front of them that makes the tea cup spin around in circles even as it zooms around the rink … AB and I really freaked out with the spinning and while we didn’t feel any after effects, I think SB’s stomach really took a beating.

We had lunch at around 2 PM … we had forgotten to bring spoons and so had to use hands … no spoons available anywhere as we really tried to search for a couple … as usual our lunch boxes contained rice items and we tried to choose a secluded spot where we could eat without people staring at us … using fingers to eat rice with the type of curries we have is not really a pretty sight … but since something more convenient wasn’t available, we put up in a eating place where the only free table was very much in view of the masses and finished our food “aaraam se”.

There is a show called “Rock around the Mouse” which they do out in the open about 5 times in a day at regular intervals … it goes through certain sections of Disneyland and ends up at a huge stage set near the entrance of Disneyland. It features Mickey and Minnie mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy Pluto and many other Disney characters in a procession of cars and accompanied by a great orchestra and cheerleaders (male and female). I remember they played out a spoof from the movie “Grease” whereby Mickey and Minnie mouse race a greasy haired “Elvis” looking guy and vampish girlfriend and beat them to the finish line … of course the “race” cars r moving at around 5 Kmph but the accompanying music and dancing made it a terrific scene. Also part of the procession are several carriages showing the princes and princesses from Disney stories. Excellent show!

There was a huge treehouse called “Chip and Dale” treehouse (u know … the chipmunks) and I went to the top of that … nice one though I didn’t really find it that interesting. Then there was Goofy’s house and Mickey’s house which we saw from outside as we didn’t have the time to go in.

I don’t know if Disneyland has any “dangerous” roller coasters coz we roamed around a lot and we didn’t really see anything too dangerous. Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain (train ride) were both listed as roller coaster “type” rides but they weren’t really in the big league. Disneyland is a big place and we didn’t really roam around every place coz simply put, there isn’t enough time … but I guess since it is more of a family place than anything else, the don’t want to keep stomach churning rides there.

Towards evening, just before leaving SB and I managed to get a couple of photos clicked with Donald and Daisy duck. SB was mightily thrilled at this event and happily remarked “Sahi hai … Disneyland bhi aa gae … Mickey Mouse ke saath photo bhi khincha liye” (Great … came to Disneyland … got photos clicked with Mickey Mouse too). “Mickey mouse”, I exclaimed … “when did u click photos with Mickey Mouse”. “Wohi abhi kiya na” (just now we did it, right), he said …. And I had the sad task of informing him that he hadn’t got a photo clicked with Mickey mouse but with Daisy duck. This information really didn’t dampen his spirits a lot and as he said “Wohi yaar … Mickey Phickey … sab wohi hai” (yeah, the same … Mickey or Phickey … everything is same).

As SB said, he isn’t really interested in all these cartoon related things … a few days later he asked me “Wo Tom and Jerry kitney ka liya tu” (For how much did u buy that Tom and Jerry thing)? I was like “Tom and Jerry … what … when”? and he said “Wo Disneyland mein liya na Tom and Jerry” (the Tom and Jerry thing u bought in Disneyland … that one). Actually I had bought a nice big Mickey Mouse doll at Disneyland … so I informed him that I had bought the Tom and Jerry thing for 4000 yen. Sighhh!

Anyway, SB and I left Disneyland at around 7:30 PM and we were home by about 8:15. All through the day I had resisted temptation to buy stuff from the various souvenir and shopping places inside Disneyland … coz they r outrageously priced. I was mentally kidding myself for being a cheapo as we left Disneyland and was promising myself that the next chance I got (and I was fairly certain I wouldn’t get it) I would buy something from the souvenir shop. Disneyland has two entrances (exits while going out) in sequence and this thought process was happening when we had crossed the first one for going out and were approaching the second one. And old man Disney had provided for people like me … just before the final exit, there was another souvenir shop … the last one before u exit Disneyland … we had roamed a lot of these shops inside Disneyland but at this one, I made purchases … a Mickey Mouse doll for home (somehow nowadays I always remember it as “wo Tom and Jerry doll”), a mickey hairband for my neice (basically it has two mickey ears on it so when someone wears it, they can be mickey mouse), two tea cups in the shape of Donald Duck and Mickey mouse for the missus. In total, 8000 yen ka jhatka … ;-) … that brought my day’s total to around 15000 yen.

We took a lot of photos from my camera and AB’s. My camera is a film one and I have to wait for its processing and printing but AB has a digital camera and so we were able to see the photos as we took them and send them out to family and friends. Even after he left in the middle of the day coz of a splitting headache, his camera remained with us enabling us to click photos till the “Change the batteries” sign popped up. Good fun! Since then, I have bought myself a Digital Camera too so now I have two cameras.

I bought the digital camera at a place called “Akihabara” which is famous in Japan for its electric and electronic goods … u get good prices there and also plenty of variety … in addition u get to bargain which u generally don’t do elsewhere in Japan. As they say, if it isn’t available at Akihabara, it probably hasn’t been made yet. In addition to the many electronic goods shops there, u have several pavement shops that sell second hand stuff … stuff people say is a pretty good bargain but then I am not an expert in electronic goods so didn’t really feel like trying my luck.

I had read up a lot on digital cameras in the preceding weeks and had shortlisted my options to one of either “Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5” or the “Canon Powershot S2 IS”. Both were good cameras according to all the reviews and notes I picked up from the net but the Canon had a far superior video feature. Ok, so digital cameras aren’t really made for collecting video and with a 1 GB memory card, the Canon takes about 8 minutes of video at highest resolution … but that is the part that leaned me towards the Canon in the end. It is not that I want to take good quality video …just the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could do it.

The reliable suggested that we go from Gyo Toku to Kayabacho and change lines to Akihabara and we did precisely that. Once we got down at Akihabara, we took directions from a car rental shop to the “electronics city” and soon we were there. Actually, it was pretty near the station but we took a circuitous route in our searching.

We separated at Akihabara, each having how own particular likes and interests. So for the next couple of hours, I roamed around the many shops there and looked up the prices of the Canon model I wanted. The price differed from shop to shop and after roaming around for an hour or more, I had a fair idea of what a good price might be. Many of the cameras sold in Japan come with a “in Japan only” tag which basically means that they do not have an international warranty and come with their software / instruction manual etc in Japanese. The price varies for the domestic and international product (the products are the same whether domestic or international model but the international model comes with international warranty and software / instructions manual etc in multiple languages) and the international model costs more. Many of the shops were selling domestic versions of both the Panasonic and Canon while a couple had the international model for the Panasonic … none had the international model for the Canon. I wondered whether to take a chance and then decided to do it … I would be in Japan for another month and a half and that was enough time to make sure the camera worked fine. If I were to go on the basis of price, I had to wait till someone got me the camera from the US coz that is where I would get the best price … no point in getting the same in India for a much higher price … and who knows about the camera got from the US, the warranty might be “US only”. Here I needn’t depend on anyone else and even if the Japanese price was more than the US price, chalta hai …. Better than waiting for someone to do me a favor. Finally I ended up buying the Canon S2 IS at a store called Softmap … I got the standard package containing Camera / strap / batteries / USB cable etc for 48000 yen … and when I convert yen to dollars, I don’t think I got a bad deal at all … the price is comparable to the best price I got through searching the net for the same model in the US. As I said, the warranty is “1 year … Japan only” … but I got the instructions booklet and software CD in English. “Ur lucky day”, as the Japanese salesman who was selling me the product told me … yeah, right! I paid around 435 dollars for the camera (calculating 110 yen per dollar which was the prevailing rate around that time) and he tells me it is my lucky day coz I got a booklet in English. The other day, a Japanese guy in office was telling us we were lucky to have experienced that 7.2 magnitude earthquake. I think these Japanese guys have a weird idea of what luck is.

Anyway, the standard package comes with a 16 MB memory card (SD memory) and alkaline batteries. As one review I read while doing my R&D on digital cameras said – “Buy the camera … take the batteries and use them for ur torch … they aren’t much use for the digital camera”. So now I gotta buy a new memory card and NiMH batteries with charger. A 256 or 512 MB card should put me back by around 5000 yen or so and the battering another 1200 yen or so. These camera companies r crazy … it is not just the Canon model I got … all the digital camera in this segment come with the same specs … 16 MB card and useless batteries.

There are big discount chains in Japan like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera which offer good prices plus a points program. Basically they give u 10-20% value of ur purchase as points which u can use for ur next purchase. So if u buy ur camera at these stores, the points ensure u get ur batteries, memory card and camera case etc for free. But u gotta make them as a separate purchase and not on the same day as the initial purchase. This points concept is very popular here in Japan and I hadn’t factored in the value of the points when I decided to get the camera from Softmap … coz Softmap doesn’t give points. However, in the end when I looked at the price Yodobashi was giving for the Canon S2 IS, I think the deal works out to be the same … coz the price there was around 5000 yen more than I what got at Softmap. Even if u factor in the points which u get at Yodobashi and which I didn’t get at Softmap, things work out almost the same, give or take 1000 yen (around 10 dollars approx).

I haven’t yet bought the new card and batteries … the 16 MB card allows me to take around 10 photos before it says “memory full” and if I try video, it allows me around 10 seconds of video. Yesterday I taped AB sitting on the bed and waving his hands and while not an Oscar winning performance, it was enough to let me know that my camera had a pretty good video feature.

40 days to go before our flight back home and I can almost taste the samosas and chaats I am gonna drown myself in once I reach home. U can have a hundred Danish pastries and a thousand croissants … but they will never replace the “paapdi chaats” and “cutlet ragadas”. Yummyyyyyyyy!

Ok guys, this has been a long one ... as usual, some might say … see u sometime someplace … on this blog.


The Chuckster

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Another discussion on quakes

In the past two weeks or so, we have experienced three earthquakes. One was a decently big one, which I described some days back. This was when we were roaming around Shinjuku camera shops … the one that caused trains to stop. The other two were in the middle of the night and were relatively very small ones. Problem is that now we r in the new location, which is a high rise building with 11 floors. Bhargava is in the 11th floor and Sateesh is in the 10th floor. I am in the 6th floor. One of us is getting more than a bit worried, I think while the other two share a bit of his concern though not yet alarmed. Thing is – this new building has a lift service and a staircase, which is a small one that winds down the building on the outside. i.e. – when we r going down the stairs, we r actually very near to the edge of the building … in ordinary circumstances it is totally safe but still not for the faint hearted or those with vertigo. In times of a quake, personally I don’t think I will even try that staircase. And one is advised not to use lifts in case of an earthquake coz they will most probably go out of order and u will be stuck in the middle till someone frees u. So if there is an earthquake, the only option for us is to sit in our apartments and hope for the best. Not a comforting thought while sitting on the 6th, 10th or 11th floor of a building where we know no one … the area is also not a really residential one, unlike the previous one (Gyo Toku) which was completely residential … not to mention that earlier building was a single storied one … as the worried guy put it – “I could jump out of my window and run if there was any problem … now I need a parachute to jump out”.

It is not as if an earthquake is gonna come tomorrow … but the thing is that Japan is supposed to get a big earthquake anytime in the near future. Scientific studies even say it should have come last year.

Even one safety manual given to us in office says - and I quote – “Why is the Tokai earthquake expected in the near future? Answer – Records show that a big earthquake in the Tokai zone occurred in a cycle of 100 to 150 years; the latest one was back in 1854. It means that, as of 2004, there has been no big earthquake for the past 150 years in this area. Naturally, the tetonic plate is presumed to put its huge energy on hold. Also, some other records show that ground subsidence has been observed in this area. Judging from these data, scientists have concluded that the Tokai earthquake should occur at any moment”.

Another para in the same safety booklet given by office says – and I again quote – “What is an “Earthquake warning”? Answer – It is feared that we might have a big earthquake, the so-called “Tokai” earthquake, with the focus located somewhere in the Suruga Bay, Shizuoka prefecture. When this earthquake is detected, the Prime Minister will make some announcement through radio and television to the effect that a big earthquake is expected to occur very soon (specifically, within a few days or in several hours) and then will go on to call for the nation to prepare for a disaster. This announcement is called an Earthquake warning, or ‘Keikai Sengen’ in Japanese”.

Reading the safety manual has not had a good effect on all of us and more so on one person … I think the worry is slightly more than necessary but then really, it is an individual thing as to how much one worries over something … I don’t blame him at all. Foreigners while coming to apna desh take so many innoculations … we live there and we don’t really take so many precautions. It is the same thing here … for the Japanese, life is normal. For us from outside, it is all a bit strange.

While talking with one immediate boss in India, I think the worried guy has given some indications that we r not safe here etc etc etc. Today evening, there is a call scheduled with some heads in India. Officially, the agenda is supposed to be “progress update” but then from what I can get from the worried guy, the agenda is really to find out how comfortable we r and whether there r any safety concerns etc. Worried guy’s fears have been translated to the people back in India as the fears of all of us. So today we will have this call … let’s see what happens. Personally, I am not concerned too much (though I cannot claim complete unconcern) coz life in Japan is like this only … they have to be careful at all times … and life goes on … till there is a problem, no use worrying about it. Everyone in Japan keeps a safety kit at home, which consists of a fire-resistant coat, helmet, rope, food and water for a couple of days, powerful torch etc. It is a part of their life. In fact, after our concerns in office about earthquakes, we have also been given this kit from the office side. So now I have a fire-resistant coat and torch etc. The kit doesn’t contain a helmet though … ;-) … maybe I will ask why not.

There were some discussions over what to say in the call etc. There were concerns about how it will sound if we say something, considering we have moved here only four days back, that too after personally seeing and approving the building; what the people in India would think; what our bosses in Japan would think etc etc etc. Suggestions were given as to what to say which, in my opinion only, amounted to unnecessary skirting around the issue. Things like – we can see for 10 days or so and if we find necessary, then change apartments AND we can stay here this month since rent has been paid … next month we can move to another place etc etc etc. Chuck’s point is – Earthquakes r not running on some scheduler or pattern. If we can wait 10 days then we can wait 20 … we can wait 30 and we might as well stay the 50 odd days left in this place. We don’t know if the quake that occurs tomorrow or day after is gonna be the big one … or the one that comes 2 years later. So either we say – “we wanna change” or “no concerns … we r fine” … judging by the concerns that r evidently there among us, the only option in my opinion is to say “we wanna change to a single storeyed apartment near office preferably in some decently populated area … right now we have one phone among the three of us … give us one each coz in the middle of a quake, I can’t run to another floor to use the phone in case of emergency” … sure it may sound unnecessary nitpicking to some people, but if we have to say something, lets say something that will end our worries rather than say something that will lead to more discussions and un-fruitful communications. As to what someone would think, I can point out the nearest canal where they can go jump.

I agree we approved the building before we moved in but that was before we got the safety manual for earthquakes given by office admin which says all the scary things … ;-) … and before getting two earthquakes in two days, albeit small ones. To the argument that rent has already been paid etc etc etc … well, I am not really thinking about money right now … just a way for my butt to escape in case of problems. Chuck doesn’t worry unless there is cause for worry … but since this issue has been raised, lets get some action than aimless chatter.

Anyway, I am clear as to what I will say if asked for an opinion. No skirting words for me. This is what I want …. Give it or don’t … that is upto u … my job is to tell u what I want. I think the other guys would prefer that someone somewhere gets our point without our having to actually say it.

Should be fun. I hope it is not really for getting progress update … would be a real let-down of expectations … ;-)



Sunday, August 07, 2005

Earthquakes in Japan

As I stood in the camera shop with everything around me ratting and shaking, I told myself not to make fun of something as serious as an earthquake.

In a previous mail, I had written about earthquakes being a common thing in Japan and my intention to just turn over and go back to sleep if one occurs during night time - Well, that sounded like a good idea before I experienced the one on Saturday (July 23). I doubt if I can sleep through something like that.

The day started out on a gloomy note as there was a bit of drizzling and it didn't look like the sun would be making an appearance. We had planned to go to Disneyland on that day but seeing the weather, we decided to postpone that to another day. No point in going to a fun place on a not-so-fun day. Anyway since we had to do something, we decided to go to Shinjuku ... yep, the same place where my office is located. There r a few shops for electronics goods in Shinjuku and there is the Tokyo Metropolitan building which is a real tall building (makes my 70 storied office building look small).

So we reached Shinjuku ... I sneered at the office building and turned my back on it ... and went to the place where the electronic goods shops were located. Yodobashi, Bic, Softmap etc have electronic goods strewn around their stores like u see strew around the ground in your Saturday bazaars. Laptops, cameras, camcorders, webcams, different types of memory cards and hundreds of other items which frankly, I have no idea what they were.

Floor by floor we walked and browsed ... for the hundreds of items which were un-identifiable, pretended to know what they were. And when I was in the section displaying digital cameras, suddenly I noticed the cameras mounted on the various shelves in front of me were vibrating. Then I realized I was vibrating too. Hey, it was an earthquake.

Having been warned by SP that earthquakes were common in Japan, I wasn't too worried. In fact, I planned to put on a bored look on my face to show everyone around me how not-scared I was. And then I noticed that people around me, many of them Japanese locals who would be used to this kind of thing, were looking nervous ... the shop was pretty much rattling and shaking a lot and judging by people's expressions, it was going on for far longer than they expected. I even heard a loud exclamation of fear from a couple of people. And then everything was still again.

Well guys, as we got to know from news sources, this one was not one of the usual small ones that keep on happening in Japan. This was 5.7 on the richter scale (in Japan, in addition to the richter scale, they have their own way of measuring the intensity of earthquakes ... I don't know what it is caleld but they measure it on a scale of 7) and that doesn't sound too bad at first ... but judge it this way. It caused all trains to stop functioning for two hours as they started extensive checks on all railway lines to ensure the trains could safely run on them. It made Narita International airport to close down take offs and landings for half hour or so while they checked all runways for damage. People were stuck all over the place with no way of getting home. Taxis are the most expensive form of local travel in Japan ... and that day, u couldn't get a taxi even if u wanted ... coz with everything else at a standstill, basically everyone wanted a taxi to reach home.

Not knowing all the drama, we kept browsing the electronics shops (in the shop where I was when the earthquake occured, not one item fell off the shelves though everything rattled alarmingly) and two hours later, made for the Shinjuku subway station to make our way home. And then we realized something wasn't normal. There were about 20 times as many people going through the station as usual and officials with loudspeakers in their hands were directing people here and there ... there were plenty of people sitting around on the ground. Since we couldn't understand what they were saying, we just made our way to our usual platform and from there, called up SP to ask what the heck was going on. He was out shopping with his wife and was stuck up in some place coz the trains weren't running. He was desperately trying to get a taxi to reach home and he told us that we might not reach home for a long time coz most trains were stopped and some were being run in phases ... two stations at a time ... while a test train ran ahead to check out the track. Then we got to know that for the past two hours, the train system in Japan (near Tokyo, mainly) was at a standstill and people were sitting around in stations waiting for the services to re-start. As it happened, the time when we reached the station was about the time the services were returning to normal. We easily got a train from Shinjuku to Kudanshita, which is where we change trains. There we faced a problem since no trains were running. So we sat around on the platform with many other people for an hour or so before a train finally pulled up to the station. Eagerly we got on .... and two stations later, everyone got down. Actually they had been broadcasting a message on the trains that it would only go for two stations further down ... but since we couldn't understand, we were sitting and dreaming of dinner once we got home. It seemed a bit funny that so many people were getting down two stations later ... till we realized that not "so many" but "all" people were getting down. So we also got down ... and waited half hour more. Another train came and we hopped on ... this time we knew the routine and so along with everyone else, trooped off the train 3 stations later and waited again. The third train we caught finally took us all the way home to Gyo Toku. A one hour journey had lasted slightly more than 3 hours and we realized we had been lucky to have got home so easily. Really, I also appreciate the way the Japanese administration went about its business ... running safety trains before actually letting the passenger trains on the track etc.

All said and done, a good experience but not something that I really want to re-visit every now and then. Till the time I thought the earthquake was a usual (normal) one, it was ok. Now I know that there will be a few abnormal ones too ... like this one ... and that is not a nice feeling. Websites in Japan while reporting earthquakes etc always talk about the great Japanese earthquake of 1923 which killed more than one lakh people ... and as recent as 1995, the earthquake in Kobe claimed around 6000 lives. It sounds wierd to me but the sites also talk normally (abnormal it seems to me ... but they mention it as a matter of fact) that Japan is due for a big one ... the only question is when. Based on scientic studies on earthquakes, they judge that Japan is located such that it would get a big earthquake once in around 100 years ... and of course, many smaller ones in between. They judge the 1923 one to be the last big one ... which means that the next big one is due sometime in the next twenty years or so ... could be twenty years later, could be ten ... could be tomorrow. Hmmm, hopefully I would be oughta here when that one comes. Bhaiya ... caught two planes, flew over the Pacific and Indian oceans ... so much trouble to get stuck in an earthquake in Japan. No thanks!!!

Yesterday we shifted to new accomodation at a place called Akebonobashi, which is near to Shinjuku ... the place where our office is located. Earlier in Gyo Toku, our apartment was in a two floor building. The new one is a 12 storied building ... I am on the 6th floor, SB is on 10th floor and AB is on the 11th. In addition to the lift, there is a tiny staircase which winds itself down to the ground floor ... hugging the outside of the building. Get it? When one is on the staircase going up or down, u r basically 4 feet away from the railing of the staircase that prevents u from reaching 11th to 1st floor in three seconds. Seems wierd to me but again, this is supposed to be some good design. These Japanese r crazy. I wouldn't go near that staircase when there is no earthquake ... if things r shaking and shivering all around, forget it. Anyway, we have asked for parachutes.

Day before yesterday in the middle of the night, there was a small earthquake ... yesterday night again there was a small earthquake. U know what ... it is not funny anymore.


The Chuckster

Japan - July 22, 2005

Almost two weeks in Japan now and I am getting used to it. Once u get used to it, it isn’t bad. WHO AM I KIDDING? No food, no cows on the road, no traffic jam … THIS IS ONE MISERABLE PLACE!!!

I read the new Harry Potter on Sunday. On Friday night (Potter was releasing on Saturday) I went to a shop that sells English novels (you would be surprised to see how few of these are here) and asked about the new Potter book, only to be presented with a pre-order coupon that entitled me to buy the book for 2300 yen, which the shop told me was a discounted price for pre-orders. That too, I had to pick up the book the next day between 8 AM and 9 AM to avail of this offer coz the shop closed its doors at 9 AM and when it re-opened its door at its normal opening time of 10 AM, the book would sell at around 3000 yen. Crazy people! Anyway, I decided to look elsewhere for it.

The next day, mentally resigned to not reading the new Potter on its inaugural day (I started reading the previous Potter book – book 5 – half an hour after it released on the first day … this was two years back), I was just having lunch with my colleagues from India, AB and SB, when the phone rang and I picked up to hear SP (the sole Indian employee in the Japanese unit of my company) ask – “u interested in the new Potter for 1800 yen?”. Seems he was roaming around some wholesale store with his wife (he is newly married … one and a half months) and saw the book up for sale for that price. SP knows me only for 10 days or so now but he already knew enough to give me a call when he saw it. So SP bought the book and I picked it up from his house in the evening. His house is in Myoden, one station away from Gyo Toku where I am putting up, and it was a nice evening walk to go over to his place and get the book. So Saturday evening I started the book and Sunday afternoon around 1 PM, I was putting it down highly dis-satisfied with its ending. You can read the review of the book at my Travel Blog Site -

Office work has been pretty routine uptil now. They r busy getting some commitment from the customer (I heard they finally got it yesterday) and so apart from some meetings in the first week, we haven’t really had too much to go on. Now if the news about the customer “go” is correct, then things will get pretty hectic in the coming days. We have a visa till October 1 and when we leave, we better leave something worthwhile to justify our three odd months here.

A couple of days back, an interesting thing happened. As I wrote in a previous mail, our lodgings r pretty far from office; around one and a half hour one way and it involves changing trains in the middle. To look at it in terms of stations, from Gyo Toku (where I stay) to Kudanshita (where I change trains) it is about 14 stations and then from Kudanshita to Shinjuku (where our office is located), it is 5 more stations. On the journey to office and half of the journey back (while coming back, we usually but not always get seats about 15 minutes into the journey), we have to stand in the train amidst a big crowd of people. Pretty tiring stuff so we were generally planning to ask if we could shift someplace closer. Then two days back, a guy came to our room and generally asked about how we were and all that. I had no idea of who he was but we answered the usual routine answers and one of us (unnamed) generally mentioned the tiring journey to and from office everyday. It was said very casually and I didn’t think much of it then but ten minutes later, a Japanese guy comes in and asks us the same questions about how we were etc. He then asked casually if our accommodation was comfortable etc and again one of us (the same unnamed) said the same thing about it being too far. Then this guy also goes away and ten minutes later, the Admin lady at the Japan office comes in and says in a most flustered manner – “I heard you would like to change your accommodation” etc etc etc. As it turned out, the first guy who came was some vice-prez guy here in the Japan office and the second guy was the prez of the Japan office. Unknowingly, we had touched on a sensitive issue, the issue of hospitality as we were guests here in Japan. Seemingly the prez immediately told the Admin Lady to look into the matter and we were immediately offered two options of accommodation, one at a place called Akebonobashi which was two stations away from office, and the second at Shin Okubo, a place even nearer office with the largest Korean immigrant population in Japan. In fact, it is sometimes (unofficially) termed as the Korean town. The Admin lady seemed to think that the Korean town might not be so preferable coz of the noisy atmosphere and the Korean immigrant tag associated with it but for me, that was not an issue. Seriously, if u stood a Japanese and a Korean in front of me and asked me to identify which was which, I would just have to take a wild guess. Sure, the Koreans r foreigners for the Japanese, but for me, both the Koreans and the Japanese are foreigners... ;-) … anyway we visited both places and decided on Akebonobashi as the suitable one. Nopes, not coz of the Korean immigrant thingy but simply coz the other place seemed quieter. So we move into our new digs on August 8. Things move fast when the prez takes an interest in the matter. Though, as explained, the involvement of the prez was completely un-intentional, we became known throughout the office as “the Indian guys who complained to the prez about their accommodation”. A note here – Korean immigrants does not mean labour class, un-educated Koreans trudging off to factories in night shifts … they r as well suited-booted as the Japanese … just that they r Koreans … I read somewhere on the net that during the World War II, the Japanese used to make the Koreans work for them and used to bring them over, mostly from North Korea ... once the war ended, they had the choice of going back but choose to remain for their own economic and personal reasons.

Anyway, all is well that ended well. From August 8, no more 1.5 hours for reaching office in crowded trains.

Here in Japan, there is no mobile phone SMS concept. Sorry for putting it so bluntly and many of u who couldn’t take the shock, do take a couple of minutes to draw your breath … maybe take a sip of water or something stronger. On trains, on the roads, in restaurants and supermarkets, I could see Japanese people working furiously on their cellphones and oblivious to the entire world around them and I assumed SMS was a bigger craze here than in India. Seriously, u SMS addicts at home cannot rival these guys as far as treating your cellphone as God is concerned. Even when they ride bicycles, they ride with one hand while the other is busy working furiously on the cell phone … obviously their gaze is also divided between road and cell phone. Those of u used to riding your motorcycles with ur cellphone tucked between neck and shoulder … this is much harder coz one hand is constantly busy pressing buttons and obviously u gotta use ur eyes to see whether what u r pressing is correct or not. Anyway, as I said, I thought initially SMS was bigger here than in apna desh and was stunned to know from SP (the Indian guy in the Japanese unit of the company) that there was no SMS. So what were these people doing? It seems (from SP’s explanation) that they were either playing games on the cellphone or sending emails. Basically

they do not have SMS but they have email through their mobile phone operators and that is what keeps them so busy. Plus the games of course! Also, the standard Japanese cell phone companies operate on CDMA … no or negligible GSM here.

Get on a train and 90% of people would either be pressing buttons on their cellphones or have their nose buried in a book … initially something that impressed me a lot. The cellphone part has already been explained. The explanation for the second part – nose buried in a book always – was also a bit different from what I expected. Seems that in Japan, comics are very popular, particularly a branch of comics termed as “Hentai” [see here for explanation -]. Hentai seems to be a craze here, irrespective of age or sex of the person and that is the primary reason for all the book-reading. In fact here it is hard to find English books anywhere; only a few stores stock them; but all shops keeping books would have a large amount of comics, Hentai included. Another thing common here is people reading the books standing in the bookshop itself … the shopkeepers don’t seem to care too much about that.

As to the interesting stuff I have seen here, I have to add the Japanese toilet. Before I left for Japan, a friend of mine sent me this link to forewarn me about toilets in Japan - I didn’t really pay it too much attention thinking it to be a spoof and that feeling was enforced when I saw the toilet in our accommodation, which was the normal western-style commode. Then one day in office I tried the office toilet and it was the one described in the article as “High tech Japanese bidets” … u can see the photograph and description in the article. Not usually used to seeing toilet commodes with a remote control, I decided to go back and read that article properly before attempting to use it. Moreover, all the buttons in the remote are labeled in Japanese so really, for me they might not have been labeled at all. Just to make sure, I pressed all the buttons one by one and nothing happened. After reading the article, I knew what the toilet could do but again, all the buttons being labeled in Japanese made things a bit difficult. Finally I took the plunge deciding that toilet paper would be the final last resort (ewwwwwwwww) and you know what … the buttons are programmed to act only when someone is sitting on the seat and hence earlier none of the buttons worked coz I was standing in front of it trying to figure out what it did. Smart guys, these Japanese! Of course had to hit the buttons at random since I couldn’t read Japanese but it worked as I thought it would. So the Japanese toilet is no longer a scary thing to think about … easy to just go in, do ur thing, go out … and hey, Look Ma, no hands. And not to forget, there is one button for warming the seat too. I wonder if I can buy one and take it back to India.

Food is a real problem here since the Japanese don’t seem to understand the concept of “vegetarian”. We took a lot of stuff from India but even then, with AB being the only cook (I can keep rice in the electric rice cooker provided in the apartment … that is it), it is hard. We eat rice everyday and sometimes more than once. Curd and rice is generally the easiest combination though AB and SB have brought along a lot of pickles and powders which when mixed with rice makes for a different taste but in the end, it is still rice. We (rather, AB cooks and we give moral encouragement) cook veggies now and then but it is generally a long process and hence depends on time and confort. I told you in a previous mail about having lunch at an Indian restaurant for 1000 yen and called it lousy. Well, a couple of days back, we went to another Indian restaurant called “Puja” for dinner (since AB was in no mood for cooking) which was operated by a guy from Delhi, and u know what, the first one was better. At least it was a buffet, albeit with limited choices, and one could eat as much as one liked. At “Puja” the bill for three people came to around 3000 yen and the quantity / quality of food was pathetic. I am not joking when I say that I went back home and had some bread to complete my dinner. Other days we have Maggi and today we bought a couple of biscuit packets from the station for breakfast though for lunch we had rice and dal packed from home.

Every now and then the Maggi runs out and we buy it from “Hira Halal shop”, a Bangladeshi run shop. The guy keeps all the stuff u would see in supermarkets in India … the MTR brand of masalas and stuff is present in entirety as is the Haldiram library of junk food. Of course, these are about 5-6 times more expensive than they would be in India … but that is inevitable here in Japan. Everything IS expensive. Sometimes, u just don’t have a choice coz if u don’t have Maggi for breakfast, u might just be tempted to try the fish / pig / crab / whatever available at the nearest food outlet.

Even buying provisions like bread, milk and vegetables is an expensive business. The other day, we bought some vegetables, milk and bread and it cost us 4000 yen, which comes to around 1600-1700 Indian rupees … and it lasted us about a week. MacDonalds is an option whereby one can buy a burger and French fries for 500 odd yen. It is a bigger hassle telling the MacDonalds employee to give the burger without putting in the meat. “Nikku nashi”, u gotta say which basically means “No meat” … initially, in my smartass way I tried “No Nikku … No Nikku” which didn’t seem to make any sense to the guy. Even when I tried “Nikku nashi”, I only get success half of the times, probably coz of the accent. I expected better from MacDonalds, seeing it to be an American chain … at least they should have English speaking staff.

Anyway, moving home for the weekend now … meaning the laptop goes home today. Maybe I go to Tokyo Disneyland this weekend, maybe next weekend … in case I go, u will be sure to hear of it.

The Chuckster