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 www.hyperdia.com (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 – www.hyperdia.com. Really, these kind of sites are amazing. When I was in the Netherlands, I used the site www.ns.nl 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 www.Hyperdia.com 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.

Cheers

The Chuckster

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