Category Archives: Sprawling Narratives

Long-winded, rambling, or otherwise lengthy.

Henry at Media Day 2012

Media Lessons From The King

Today, Thierry Henry announced he would not be returning to the New York Red Bulls following the expiration of his contract. The move was not a surprise, but still has left many that surround the team a bit down.

So much ink has already been spilled about the legacy of the last four years: his talent on the field, his role with the club, his impact on MLS. He’s been an anchor since I returned to caring about the league in 2010, someone that I couldn’t believe I got to watch perform week in and week out.

But as I’m writing this on my personal site, I want to reflect on the other lasting mark Henry has left on me: he was the rare player that demanded more out of everyone involved with the team, including the media.

If you follow league beat reporters, particularly those who deal with RBNY routinely, you’re aware of his reputation when dealing with the media in the locker room. Some would label him “cranky”. Some declared him “rude”. An incident where he declined media availability after a 1-1 draw against Chivas USA in 2012 sparked a brief dust-up between media and supporters about whether or not beats had any right to speak to players at all.

Obligatory Picture Of My Stupid Face In Henry's Scrum

I won’t claim to “know” Henry from my three years of sticking a microphone towards his face, but I at least grew to have an understanding of him.

Thierry didn’t relish dealing with the media hovering around his locker, but he accepted it. (European locker rooms aren’t open to media, but MLS mandates the doors open 15 minutes after the match ends.) He was typically the last player to speak after a match, sometimes waiting a solid hour after the final whistle, which triggered its fair share of pissed off “You’re waiting HOW LONG?” text messages from soccer media widows. But Henry always seemed to have a level of professional respect for those of us who did stick around.

Thierry had his cliches – “as I said to you before”, “I don’t know if you remember”, and “not having a go at any one” being the three go-to for any Henry impersonation – but he genuinely considered every question. I can’t remember him being on auto-pilot or content with performances – he always latched on to something the team could improve on. If the team did badly, he was open about it. If the team won 4-1, he would complain about the conceded goal. If the team won 4-0, he would caution about celebrating too much, because he knew it wouldn’t be long before the team regressed.

His knowledge of the game was impossibly deep. He would run down talent on opposing rosters not that they had just faced, but that were coming up. He would commend systems and coaches elsewhere in MLS. He would frequently drop analogies involving NBA teams, the other sport he truly loved.

Following a recent home game, as he was getting ready at his locker, I watched him look up at the closed circuit TV, that was showing the annual NYPD vs. FDNY match. And he watched it just long enough, and gestured at the TV, that I could’ve swore he was analyzing the match.

Nearly as much as he loved challenging defenders on the field, he took a deep pleasure in challenging dumb or trite questions.

Thoughts on the match? “It was 90 minutes.”

Have you ever played in a game as crazy as that one? “I’ve played in a lot of games.”

Do you enjoy the new away jersey the club just released? “I don’t know, I haven’t worn it yet.”

An intricate question about his position moving wide left as he used to at Arsenal? Gets swatted down because he insists he didn’t play there at Arsenal.

My own personal dressing down (which I was surprised to find I still had the audio for) came after a softball about what he had seen from the reserves during a friendly he didn’t play in. He had often loved talking up the younger players who didn’t get a lot of field time, but apparently not as much as he loved giving me crap about trying to gain insight from a friendly:

What Thierry taught me, more than anyone else in the RBNY locker room, is the value of asking a question with a non-obvious answer. You can’t lose the germane questions entirely to get an interview rolling, but unless there’s something I can’t answer in my head, I’ve learned to just listen.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing in his final year with the club was how focused he was on the team, and not himself. As the “What are you doing next year?” questions came up nearly every week, his answer was always the same: “We’ll talk about that after the season ends.” Even in the announcement today, the thought was the same: he didn’t want to take the focus off the team’s performance. He didn’t want a farewell tour, teams bringing him gifts, endless fawning media tributes. He wanted to put his head down and be one of the eleven guys on the field.

There was an article in the club’s corporate magazine that had perhaps my favorite quote that wrapped up how he saw himself:

I keep on reiterating to everybody, I didn’t save anyone’s life, I’m not a hero, I’m none of those things. I was just out there to play the game and while I understand I gave some people joy and I ended up loving the club I played for most of my career, I didn’t go to war to protect my country. That’s worthy of elevation to the status of ‘hero’, you know? I just want people to remember me for playing some soccer and that’s all. Another player will come along and erase all those records but as long as people can recall me in some way it means that I’ve done something right.

Thanks, Thierry. It’s been a pleasure.

Calculating My 2014 MLS MVP Vote

(Trigger warning for non-soccer friends: this is all soccer.)

The end of the season MLS award voting is a bit of a struggle. With rather nebulously defined categories, voters (of which I am afforded a ballot through my media role) is forced to scratch their heads a lot. We try to figure out what level of adversity justifies the “Comeback Player Of The Year” award. We read through team-supplied biographies of various charitable efforts to work out who deserves “MLS WORKS Humanitarian Of The Year”.

And “Most Valuable Player”? It’s hopeless. Player “value” is subjective to the individual person, and so what makes one player valuable to one voter may not matter at all to another. And it’s been particularly difficult in 2014, with no clear frontrunner across any of the 19 MLS teams. Yet it’s serious business: one Twitter user declared me a “fucking idiot” for not having their favorite player in my short list.

So inspired by the Grand Ginger Of Major League Soccer (who advocates for having a formula for deciding your MVP, despite Twellman’s objections), I decided to create my own algorithm this year to help me figure out my vote.

First, I had to select a player pool. Defensive metrics are nearly impossible to come by, so I limited the list to forward and midfield players, trying to get at least one per team (with a few exceptions: sorry Colorado / Montreal / San Jose!). The twenty names that ended up on the spreadsheet were:

Quincy Amarikwa (Chicago); Will Bruin (Houston); Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York); Erick “Cubo” Torres (Chivas USA); Jermain Defoe (Toronto); Clint Dempsey (Seattle); Landon Donovan (L.A.); Dom Dwyer (Kansas City); Fabian Espindola (D.C.); Ethan Finlay (Columbus); Thierry Henry (New York); Robbie Keane (L.A.); Sebastian Le Toux (Philadelphia); Obafemi Martins (Seattle); Lee Nguyen (New England); Pedro Morales (Vancouver); Joao Plata (Salt Lake); Luis Silva (D.C.); Diego Valeri (Portland); Gyasi Zardes (L.A.)

Independently from the players, I had to select what stats mattered to me, and how much each counted.

I started with the most critical thing you can do as a player: win games for your team. So game winning goals were given a weight of 4 points each, and game winning assists would earn 3 points each.

Next, I wanted to reward offensive production in general, so non-penalty goals earned 2 points (even if they were the same as the game winner). Non-game-winning assists were worth 1 point.

Then I wanted to consider what actions an offensive player could take that would damage their team’s ability to win. I could only think of two that were easily measured: missed penalties and red cards. Red cards being the more serious of the two, I subtracted two points for each red and removed a single point for a missed penalty kick.

This gave me a raw score for each player. How did it look? Here was the top ten:

  1. Robbie Keane (79 points)
  2. Lee Nguyen (71 points)
  3. Bradley Wright-Phillips (68 points)
  4. Tie, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins (61 points each)
  5. (see #4)
  6. Landon Donovan (59 points)
  7. Tie, Dom Dwyer and Gyasi Zardes (58 points each)
  8. (see #7)
  9. Thierry Henry (53 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (52 points)

For most pundits, this is a cut and dry confirmation of what many had been saying: Robbie Keane’s production was ridiculous, and he was an easy vote for MVP. (Grant Wahl offered his case for Keane winning MVP today, which partially lead to this post being written.)

I, unsurprisingly, am not most pundits.

I get very hung up on the word “valuable”, and after rolling it around in my head for a while, I couldn’t overlook one thing: the pay scale in MLS is quite notoriously out of whack. This is, after all, a league where a player on one side of the locker room may be making $6,000,000 as a base salary (like Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe), while his teammate across the room may be on the league minimum of $36,500 (like Toronto FC midfielder Daniel Lovitz).

So I wanted to apply a “salary factor”, one that would adjust the player’s performance in light of their salary. This took a little while to figure out a reasonable system for, because with the range so great, it could very easily tilt the scale too far away from designated players.

The formula I came up with looks like this:

Factor = SQRT(SQRT([Player Base Salary] / [League Median Salary]))

The league median in 2014, per articles I dug up, was $80,000. Taking the fourth root stabilized the values into a range from 0.89 (for Ethan Finlay, making just $50,848) up to 2.94 (for Jermain Defoe). Dom Dwyer sits right at $80,000, so he was the only player to not have his raw score modified by the multiplier.

Is the factor uniformly fair? It’s debatable, but my general impression is yes. The Keanes and Defoes of the world should be better than the guys making a sliver of their salary. (Again, I’m obsessing over value, and I get that’s not for everyone.)

Here, then, are the rankings of all 20 players scaled by salary:

  1. Lee Nguyen (58.38 points)
  2. Dom Dwyer (58.00 points)
  3. Gyasi Zardes (51.88 points)
  4. Joao Plata (50.66 points)
  5. Bradley Wright-Phillips (47.71 points)
  6. Ethan Finlay (43.68 points)
  7. Luis Silva (37.88 points)
  8. Will Bruin (36.49 points)
  9. Fabian Espindola (35.89 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (32.89 points)
  11. Erick “Cubo” Torres (30.66 points)
  12. Robbie Keane (28.85 points)
  13. Obafemi Martins (28.76 points)
  14. Quincy Amarikwa (24.72 points)
  15. Sebastian Le Toux (24.07 points)
  16. Landon Donovan (21.85 points)
  17. Clint Dempsey (21.79 points)
  18. Thierry Henry (20.26 points)
  19. Pedro Morales (15.79 points)
  20. Jermain Defoe (12.91 points)

There’s a lot of interesting occurrences in here, particularly when it comes to LA’s attack. Donovan (4 GWG / 5 GWA) and Keane (5 GWG, 6 GWA) both produced big numbers, but when Gyasi Zardes is in the same ballpark (6 GWG / 0 GWA) for a fraction of the salary ($125,000 compared to Landon’s $4.25M and Robbie’s $4.5M), it’s hard to argue they’re not getting tremendous value out of their academy product.

But overall, the math confirmed what my gut had been feeling: that Lee Nguyen put up incredible numbers (no one was even close to his nine game winning goals) at what is almost a criminally low salary. (Never mind that he’s not an attacker and produced those numbers as a midfielder.)

So: my first choice vote (you get two choices on the ballot) for the 2014 MLS MVP for Lee Nguyen.

I have no doubt some will want to argue that my weights are wrong, that I’ve overlooked a key metric, or that I’m just dumb for using a spreadsheet to determine who to vote for. And that’s cool, but I’m not looking to argue – it was my vote, one of who knows how many in the media vote, which will only count for 33% of the total vote scoring.

For those that would prefer to argue about this, a request: write your own algorithm. The process is illuminating about what does and doesn’t matter to you when it comes to player performance. (And if you want to lobby people with the votes that count the most, aim for a club’s sporting director/coach/GM/communications director, as those 76 votes combined count as much as the entire media vote.)

As for my second choice? Well, I can’t follow a formula all the time.

A Love Letter To Freeverse

Touch Arcade and Techcrunch have details on ngmoco:)‘s acquisition of Freeverse Software. This has a lot of implications for the iPhone software market, but I’ll let the business wonks talk about that.

Freeverse is entwined in the last 15 years of my life in ways that few things can compare. Their games and software toys helped keep me sane during high school. When my life went into a slight free-fall during college, I became anchored with an internship with them.

Continue reading

MobileMeh

January, 2000: Apple unveiled iTools. Provided for free to anyone running OS 9, it provided a POP email account at mac.com, 20 MB of internet-based storage referred to as iDisk, web hosting space, and internet filtering software to keep the kids safe. It was 2000, I was in college, it was free. I could not argue. I took the address remy@mac.com.

July, 2002: iTools relaunches as “.Mac”. It begins to cost $100 a year. Having just graduated, and not wanting to be tied to my university email for the rest of my life, I opt to start paying in October.

October, 2003: I renew my .Mac account. I am happy with the service.

February 2004: I purchase my first Sidekick. It does not sync contacts with my phone, thus increasing the value of address book sync.

April, 2004: Gmail launches. Unable to take a name of less than six characters, I default back to “remydwd” as my user name. My .Mac email account falls out of favor, but continue to renew the account for address book synchronization.

October, 2004: I renew my .Mac account. I feel like I am getting enough out of the address book, bookmarks, and keychain sync to justify the cost, and Katie’s email account is attached as a sub-account.

October, 2005: I renew my .Mac account. I still feel like I am getting enough out of the address book, bookmarks, and keychain sync to justify the cost, and Katie’s email account is attached as a sub-account.

April, 2006: Google Calendar launches. Any use I had for iCal as a primary repository of my calendaring now goes out the window.

October, 2006: I renew my .Mac account. I’m not entirely sure I am getting enough out of the sync to justify the cost, but Katie’s email account is attached as a sub-account.
June, 2007: The iPhone comes out. I buy one the day after release. I finally replace my Sidekick with a phone that can actually sync my address book.

October, 2007: Leopard launches, which features “Back to My Mac”. I finally have some degree of reliable screen sharing between home and the office. I happily renew my .Mac account.

April, 2008: I get an invite to Dropbox. I immediately forget about the existence of iDisk – not that I had ever used it much to begin with.

June, 2008: .Mac relaunches as MobileMe. It is largely terrible for the first few months. I don’t notice much as I’m not using the service – not even on my iPhone for over-the-air contact syncing, which blows out my address book the first time I try it. I get a three month service extension to compensate for the poor service.

January, 2009: I renew my .Mac account. Katie has switched to Gmail at long last, but Back To My Mac is still mostly useful.

June, 2009: iPhone OS 3.0 is released. “Find my iPhone” is added as a feature to MobileMe. I find it neat but ultimately useless, as I could remote wipe through a console at the office. I can now get both my work and personal calendar over the air, reliably. I refer to this as the “holy grail” around the office.

January 2010: I face reality. When you have extremely reliable, robust email from Google, cloud storage with every feature I can imagine from Dropbox, and I’m able to carry my address book with me on my iPhone all the time, I am unable to see any reason to continue with MobileMe. I decline to renew my account.

Narrative aside, there’s a lesson here: if you’re going to provide core internet services, consider the price differential between you and your strongest competitor. If it’s a little, you only need to be a little better.

$100 a year for what feels like a worse product than what’s available for free? Your business model is *screwed*. Start over, do better.

Tokyo 2010: 26 Hour Party People

A blow-by-blow description of what is necessary to get from Shinagawa, Japan to Jersey City, New Jersey:

1/3 11:30 AM JST (1/2 9:30 PM EST) – checked out of the Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo. Discovered that the Airport Limousine bus would not be running due to a marathon. Directed to use the train system instead.

1/3 11:50 AM JST (1/2 9:50 PM EST) – with two heavy suitcases in tow, departed Shinagawa Station on the JR Yamanote, bound for Tokyo Station.

1/3 12:15 PM JST (1/2 10:15 PM EST) – arrived at Tokyo Station. Purchased two Narita Express (“NEX”) train tickets. Proceeded to platform.

NEX

1/3 12:33 PM JST (1/2 10:33 PM EST) – boarded NEX.

1/3 1:27 PM JST (1/2 11:27 PM EST) – arrived at Narita Airport. Queued up at Air Canada ticket counter.

1/3 2:00 PM JST (1/3 12:00 AM EST) – ticket counter opens. I am told I should check my coat since I may not be allowed to bring it onto the plane to Newark. Despite both suitcases being full, I manage to do so.

1/3 2:20 PM JST (1/3 12:20 AM EST) – while going through security, I am forced to throw out my can of FFXIII “Elixer” soda. The only reason I had it with me was because, as a duty free item, I was supposed to have it with me in case Customs wanted to see it. I discard it, sadly. I am happy to note that Japanese airport security does not force you to remove your shoes.

1/3 2:30 PM JST (1/3 12:30 AM EST) – we pass through Japanese immigration and customs. I am not asked to show my duty free items, meaning I’m not needlessly carrying an extra bag full of things.

1/3 2:40 PM JST (1/3 12:40 AM EST) – I purchase a new set of headphones at “DUTY FREE AKIHABARA”, having misplaced my regular iPhone earbuds. An hour later, I would find them again.

1/3 2:50 PM JST (1/3 12:50 AM EST) – we settle down to eat at one of the three restaurants in the terminal. I have a cheeseburger; it is acceptable. I am fascinated by gum syrup.

Waiting At Narita

1/3 4:25 PM JST (1/3 2:25 AM EST) – we begin boarding for our flight. We are in row 42 out of 44, troubling for someone who needs to catch a connecting flight less than two hours after landing (4:45 PM EST). Our legroom is less than ideal, and I miss being in an exit row.

1/3 5:10 PM JST (1/3 3:10 AM EST) – we take off. Watching a video about Toronto arrivals, I learn that I have to clear US customs while in Toronto, rather than in Newark – which includes claiming my baggage and then re-checking it post customs. Again, troubling given the amount of time we have for the connection, never mind the unknown additional security.

1/3 8:10 PM JST (1/3 6:10 AM EST) – I begin to get scattered amounts of sleep, in two to three hour pockets. I am frequently interrupted by food service.

TIME ZONE SWITCH ... JST -> EST ... -14 HOURS

15000 Miles?

1/3 2:30 PM EST (1/4 4:30 AM JST) – the pilot announces that we are being asked to hold in the air for an extra 15 minutes, which means we probably won’t reach the gate until 3:30. I notice that the in-flight map says we’ve gone 15,000 miles, which would mean we had been traveling over 1000MPH on average. You would think a navigation system could deal with the international date line and the fact that we’re now in the past, but seemingly not.

1/3 3:45 PM EST (1/4 5:45 AM JST) – we deboard and speed walk towards immigration.

1/3 3:55 PM EST (1/4 5:55 AM JST) – we arrive at the US connections baggage claim. I notice that our flight is delayed by two hours to 6:45 PM, thus replacing the fear of not making the connection with the frustration of not getting home when we had intended.

1/3 4:15 PM EST (1/4 6:15 AM JST) – our luggage finally appears. I withdraw my coat and replace it with the bag of goods I had needlessly been carrying. We clear customs without incident.

1/3 4:25 PM EST (1/4 6:25 AM JST) – we go through another regular security screening. This time, the shoes come off.

"Enhanced Search"

1/3 4:30 PM EST (1/4 6:30 AM JST) – on the way to the gate, we see two large gender-separated lines. The one additional measure that has seemingly been added post-Christmas scare, the “Enhanced Search” is an individual bag check and pat down. I am asked to turn on each electronic device once (phone, Kindle, PSP). I am asked to undo my belt, to lift the soles of my shoes, to spread my legs and grab the table. I am asked how the David Foster Wallace book (Broom Of The system) I am reading is. (I am unclear whether that was a security test, small talk, or a sincere question from the guard.)

YYR

1/3 4:50 PM EST (1/4 6:50 AM JST) – I finally clear the screening, having been in a longer line than Katie and opting to go to the bathroom before queueing. It is noted that had our flight been on time, we would have missed it.

1/3 5:00 PM EST (1/4 7:00 AM JST) – we spring for an hour of Boingo wifi. Twitter updates are quickly sent, email is checked.

1/3 6:00 PM EST (1/4 8:00 AM JST) – flight is pushed back again, this time to 7:45. I get in line at Tim Horton’s and buy a 10-pack of Timbits. They make me feel much better.

1/3 7:30 PM EST (1/4 9:30 AM JST) – an announcement informs us that the plane has arrived, albeit at a different gate, and it will be here shortly. We remain incredulous.

1/3 7:45 PM EST (1/4 9:45 AM JST) – flight is pushed back to 8:00. The crew heads down to inspect the plane.

1/3 8:05 PM EST (1/4 10:05 AM JST) – we board. We are in the last row. The pilot informs us that the plane picked up a lot of ice on the way in, so we have to stop at the central de-icing station before we can take off.

1/3 8:35 PM EST (1/4 10:35 AM JST) – we take off, having been de-iced. We are offered free headsets and free drinks (including wine/beer/cocktails) as an apology from Air Canada.

1/3 10:10 PM EST (1/4 12:10 PM JST) – having just passed the 24 hour travel mark, we touch down in Newark. The pilot informs us that we are being held on the tarmac for 15-20, though, because our gate is not available. There is a collective groan. During this time, we learn that Terminal C at Newark is shut down due to a security situation. I am happy to be traveling to terminal A.

1/3 10:45 PM EST (1/4 12:45 PM JST) – we deboard.

Baggage Claim at EWR

1/3 11:05 PM EST (1/4 1:05 PM JST) – our luggage appears. We get in the taxi line, doing that wonderful NYC thing where you avoid having a conversation with the illegal limo hacks trying to prey on unsuspecting tourists. A man behind me tells one of them off, to which the driver gets defensive, saying he’s just “trying to do us a favor” since it is cold out. I laugh, while mentally noting that it is about 40 degrees colder than it was in Japan.

1/3 11:30 PM EST (1/4 1:30 PM JST) – we arrive at our apartment building. We collect our mail, unlock the door, begin unpacking, and invite over Bruce and Alanna to exchange gifts and catch up.

It has been exactly 26 hours of physical time passing since we left the hotel.

Tokyo 2010: A Scattered Final Day

We had held today as a final wrap-up day, mostly with the intention to clean up things we had missed, not found, or otherwise not gotten around to. This may be less interesting than the other days – my apologies.
After the Fukubukuro madness, we took a short ride up to Harajuku to grab a few additional gifts for people. Because of the proximity to the Meiji shrine, the area was flooded with people – as we would learn, Saturday foot traffic practically everywhere in Tokyo is about five times the volume of what we experienced mid-week.
We then returned to Shibuya once more to hit the Tower Records (or, as our bank transactions romanized it, “Towa Reko”). With the death of large-scale music shops in NYC – HMV closed around 2003, Tower in 2007, and Virgin Megastore in 2009 – I found it thrilling that Tower and HMV are not only alive, but thriving. More functional than any Tower I had ever been in previously, the store featured lots of listening stations, plenty of recommendations, and well defined floors. (Entertainment, unfortunately, is one place where the Japanese costs far outpace ones in the US – most Japanese CDs float between $20-30, tax inclusive. Games and movies run a similar premium. Strangely, American CDs tend to be about $15-20, even after tax.)
As far as pickups: the new Fantastic Plastic Machine album, “FPM”, just came out a week prior and was a no-brainer. Katie managed to find House☆Disney, a remix album by Japanese house artists. She also picked up the heavily advertised flumpool album.
After some more flitting around in Shibuya – visiting the Seibu and Oioijam department stores – we headed to the station to grab the train to the Imperial Palace. January 2nd is one of two days of the year (the other being in mid-December, for the Emperor’s birthday) that the inner gardens are open to the public. That was the intent, anyhow – due to an unspecified “accident”, train service would be suspended for about 45 minutes.
As Close As We Got To The Inner Garden
By the time we made it to the Imperial Palace, the large crowds coming back didn’t give me a lot of hope – and sure enough, people were being turned away at the entrance.
Imperial Palace Trees
Still, the parts of the grounds that are open to the public at all times are impressive and otherwise pleasant.
We then returned to Tokyo Station with the intent of finding me my bowl of ramen. But after searching around, we opted instead for Suginoko, an Udon noodle place (ironically, right next door to Katsugen from two days prior). I am not heartbroken over missing out on the ramen – the bowl of hot udon in a pork curry broth was fantastic. The Udon was served with a side of tempura fried mass of onions – not unlike an onion ring loaf, but about a thousand times better.

While venturing around the station, Katie got pulled into a mochi kneading demonstration. The crowd was very excited to see her whack the mochi with the mallet, and afterwords we were given some of the fresh mochi with sweet red bean paste. Delicious.
By this point, we had been out and active for nearly 12 hours, so we cut short the evening plans, but not before taking the train to Hamamatsucho for…
Pokemon Center Success
Yes, the Pokemon Center. Watching Katie’s eyes light up as she slid through the crowded store, grabbing nearly every Pichu-related item she could find was quite a sight. I opted for a shirt from the upscale/designer line, Pokemon151.
For the last time, we returned to Shinagawa – I managed to make it out of the turnstile with exactly 40 yen remaining on my Suica card – and returned to the hotel to begin trying to figure out how we’re going to pack all this stuff in our two suitcases.

Tokyo 2010: Tokyo DisneySea

Disney Balloons

New Year’s Day tends to be a fairly quiet holiday in Japan. With most of the focus being on spirituality and family, most businesses are closed. As a tourist, this could have made the day difficult.

But: amusement parks are still open. So at the suggestion of our friend Richard Whittaker, we hopped a train for Maihama Station and Tokyo DisneySea, the uniquest of the parks at Tokyo Disney. Sure, it may not be the truest experience of what Tokyo is like, but if this is where the Japanese go for a mini-vacation, it must be worth a shot.

A Sense Of Scale
Tower of Terror, Far
Ancient Ruins

Tokyo DisneySea is divided into seven distinct areas, ranging from the Arabian Coast (Aladdin themed) to Lost River Delta (the ruins, home of the Indiana Jones ride), from the American Waterfront to the Mediterranean Harbor. All have an immense sense of scale, and the architecture is meticulous. The Cape Cod area within the American Waterfront actually could be mistaken for Cape Cod were it not for the giant volcano looming in the background.

Delancey Catering

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some amusing juxtapositions, like the above hot dog truck, the Liberty Fish Market, and the fact that you can find it spelled as “Cape Codde” on a sign.

The rides are generally a lot of fun, and FastPass-ing is free as an alternative to standing in line. I recommend StormRider (a giant motion simulator that takes you into “the eye of the storm”), the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull (better than the movie!), and the Tower of Terror (which jerks you around a lot more than the one in Orlando).

Beyond the rides, there were a few cultural discoveries:

The Pause That Refreshes
Daisy Hats

First: the Japanese really love character hats. Lots of teenage couples (yes, the guys too) were sporting the sort of fuzzy hats you see here – normally with Mickey ears, but a lot of Stitch hats and a good number of Donald/Daisy ones as well. It all seemed perfectly normal, with no one pointing or laughing. There was a refreshing lack of irony the entire day.

Duffy Love
Line for Duffy Stuff

Second, and perhaps most confusing of all: Japan is in love with Duffy. Unfamiliar with Duffy? So was I.

The Bear of Happiness and Luck, Duffy is impossible to miss if you spend more than five minutes in DisneySea. Ultimately, he’s just a stuffed teddy bear, but there’s backstory of Minnie giving him to Mickey before he went on a long trip for good luck. The trend seems to be to buy the largest Duffy Bear you can manage, possibly buy an outfit for him, and carry him with you in the park (or stuff him into your coat).

The number of Duffy bears you will see carried around the park is astonishing. Some girls had upwards of eight in various sizes and locations on their outfits. People were routinely seen carrying three foot tall Duffy bears. The primary shop to buy Duffy outfits/accessories had a 15 minute line outside to get in (pictured above).

Public Sleepers

Third: Japan looks fairly kindly on public sleepers, and we saw over a hundred of them around the park. People passed out in restaurants, on benches, along the walls of the park – they all just sack out and eventually wake up. Coming from a city where falling asleep publicly usually leads to a lighter wallet, it was sweet (but disconcerting) to see.

Lastly: concessions in Japan destroy American theme park food. Just out of what I sampled/saw:

* Endless amounts of popcorn – strawberry, as well as caramel, chocolate, curry, and black pepper. Lots of people were carrying around souvenir refillable buckets, and nearly every popcorn cart had a line.
* Ice cream – sea salt ice cream, tiramisu flavored ice cream sandwiches, and gelato.
* Spicy smoked chicken legs
* Cheesecake chimichangas.
* Tacos made with fresh tortillas
* Churros in various flavors – chocolate and sesame
* Perhaps most amazing of all – gyoza sausage rolls. Pork sausage with peppers and onions, wrapped in gyoza dough and steamed. Like a traditional sausage roll, but lighter and more delicious. Someone needs to bring these to America, because (a) it was amazing and (b) I need another one.

It’s not just the quality, it’s also the price – most everything I just listed was available for $5 or less. I’m not sure $5 gets you much of anything at US theme parks these days. Normally at theme parks, I strive to avoid eating much of anything because of the inevitable cost – but this was a dream. (Hell, even admission was about $20 cheaper per person than Disneyworld in Orlando.)

It may seem silly to visit a theme park while on vacation – this wasn’t something we planned far in advance – but we had a great time, and can only recommend it for those looking to see a refreshing take on an experience you may generally think of as cliché.

Tokyo 2009: Akihabara Revisited + Marunouchi

Akihabara

After getting visually overwhelmed earlier in the week, we made our first stop this morning a return to Akihabara. Overflowing with multi-story electronics superstores, anime/manga retailers, and nooks packed with games, it would be a nerd heaven even without an abundance of arcades, street food, and maid cafes.

Maid Cafe Crowd

There’s a definite advantage to trekking through the area during the daytime, as the neon glow from all of the stores combined with an abundance of people makes nighttime a bit challenging for those not native to the area. That said, there is something intangibly wonderful about the area after the sun sets.

IIDX Action

After flitting through a few stores, I settled back into the second and third floor of the Taito Station to get my mandatory music gaming out of the way. One round of Pop’n Music THE MOVIE, one round of DDR X, and one round of beatmania IIDX Sirius all passed by very quickly.

The third floor of Taito station is interesting as it seems to be mostly populated not by native Japanese, but by tourists from around the world. I suppose that after 10 years of DDR floating around the world, foreigners are most comfortable with these games, and are expecting some sort of show. (Fighting games are a floor higher; the “girly” music games like Pop’n and Taiko no Tatsujin are a floor below.)

A little bit more store browsing later, and we were on our way out of the area to head to Tokyo Station.

Under The Tokyo Station

Underneath Tokyo Station lies a maze of shops and restaurants, in addition to at least eight more train lines. It is frantically busy, especially on a day like today where much of the country seems to be traveling.

While wandering here, we found Katsugen in the “Kitchen Street” restaurant area, and we were ready to check another food off the list. I opted for the *Katsuzen* set lunch – red clam miso soup, rice, pickles, the mandatory pile of shredded cabbage with citrus yuzu dressing, and a healthy sized portion of katsu – and a mug of draft beer; Katie went for a different set that she had hoped contained crab croquettes but instead had katsu-fried oysters. (She did not complain.) It would be hard to call this anything other than my ideal Japanese meal.

Marunouchi

The day then turned a bit sour, as our planned shopping destination – the Pokemon Center – was not to be found where our guidebook indicated it would be. We beat up and down the back streets in the hopes that we just weren’t finding the entrance, but to no avail. After a while, the wind began to pick up, a headache began to set in, and we fled the area. (Later, research would prove that the store at that location closed in 2007; the new location is a few stations away. Will try again on Saturday.)

A little wandering around in Shinagawa allowed us to procure desserts and sweets for later tonight. Naps followed, as did a quiet sushi dinner at the proper hotel restaurant.
While it may be fun to traipse to Roppongi to hole up in a bar and ring in the new year, or to push through the cold towards a temple for the midnight bell ringing, we are taking the remainder of New Year’s Eve in our hotel room, quietly enjoying the TV. Happy new years!