Ten years ago today, I married the love of my life. Reflection, anecdotes, and more old pictures of the two of us inside.
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.
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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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. 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. 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… 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
One of the things I am really enjoying about Tokyo is how intricate and lively the stations are. American mass transit systems tend to allow only for a newsstand at the major stations; London is slightly better with vending machines near the tracks. But Tokyo has shopping malls surrounding and inside the transit system. The Shinagawa station alone has bookstores, CD/DVD stores, and a whole dessert-focused food court (among other dining options) beyond the turnstiles.
A 20 minute train ride later brought us to Harajuku. While a Wednesday trip doesn’t provide the opportunity to gawk at dressed up teenagers (they tend to come out on Sunday), it did let us explore an area that seems to be a cross between (in NYC terms) Fifth Avenue and the East Village. The two main shopping streets run parallel to each other and both start at the station. Omotesando is the Fifth Avenue side – lots of international stores like Ralph Lauren, Gap, and Chanel.
Omotesando is also where you can find KIDDYLAND, a six store toy store that has been serving happiness since 1946. It’s a worthwhile stop, if for nothing else to see how much floor space various franchises take up. (Pokemon gets about 30 square feet on B1, while Peanuts/”Snoopy Town” gets an entire floor.)
A few blocks north from Omotesando is Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian only shopping mecca. This is the Harajuku you may expect, with ridiculous clothes and accessories and throngs of people. There’s a number of restaurants as well, but most people seemed to be queued up for one of the many crepe stands that all smelled delicious.
Our last major stop for the day was in Ikebukuro, a fairly commercial district where the train station is sandwiched in between two department stores: Seibu (apparently meaning “west area railway line”, located on the east side of the station) and Tobu (apparently meaning “east area railway line”, and naturally located on the west side of the station).
We took lunch at a Korean buffet on the 3F of Tobu Spice2, which required a lot of gesturing and sumimasen-ing. On the other hand, it was cheap and tasty. If nothing else, I am appreciative for the patience of the Japanese for those of us who know next to no Japanese.
We then crossed back through the train station to the east side, and made our way to Sunshine 60 Dori – another pedestrian mall shopping strip. We unfortunately didn’t find anything terribly unusual, so we beat our way back to the train and returned to Shinagawa.
For dinner, we opted for the set menu Mizu no Uta, a few blocks from the hotel. Sitting at the counter, we were treated to some of the best tuna I’ve ever tasted – perhaps too much of it. We started to run out of steam around the time we were grilling our own thin strips of tuna, and when a fried rice course came out immediately after, it became a struggle. Still – great food, and I can now cross the “sushi/sashimi” off my Tokyo food checklist. Now I just need to find a proper bowl of ramen and some tonkatsu.
Shibuya seemed like a good district to start our trip in. Easily accessible via the JR Yamanote Line, home to a few specific destinations, it is energetic without being completely overwhelming.
Hachiko Crossing, iconic sight of Japan that it is, is not very intimidating at 10:30 AM. We proceeded across and walked up Center Gai, a pedestrian area lined with restaurants, clothing shops, bars, and towering pachislot arcades.
Our first major shopping destination was Tokyu Hands, the “Creative Life Store” which holds just about everything in its seven stories. There was a certain bemusement that many things that I’ve seen at AC Gears in the East Village could be found here, often for much cheaper. An hour later, we walked away with a truly mixed bag of merchandise, including a very tasty iPhone case.
GUHROOVY is a hardcore techno record shop tucked away on an isolated third story in Udagawacho. Run by DJ CHUCKY, the store is somewhat notorious in the IIDX/Bemani community for being a key resource for albums featuring popular artists from the series. It is less than 200 square feet in total, but for techno junkies, it is blissful.
This was the only business that I had gone so far as to print out directions for and to seek out, and seeing as I may not be back in the neighborhood beyond this day, I did not let the opportunity slip away from me.
Fun fact for the Bemani faithful: the store has, with no explanation or price tag, a copy of Beatmania US on top of one of the shelves.
We then started to backtrack, finding that a doll shop that Katie had seen earlier – Doneunyo – was now open. Katie has been collecting Japanese dolls for few years; an opportunity to go to an official Blythe dealer was not one she could resist. (Junie Moon, her go-to destination, had closed for the holiday week.) She walked away very happy. We stopped into a few SEGA World arcades, where I learned that Katie has a crippling addiction to UFO Catcher machines. I also got a big round of applause, a bow, and a picture taken from two Japanese girls who were astounded to see someone foreign play Taiko no Tatsujin well.
After a quick lunch, we returned to the Shibuya train station, but not before stopping at RanKing RanQueen. Time Out Tokyo describes it as “an intriguing insight into the mind of the Japanese consumer”. All products are categorized and ranked by popularity – so for example, you can buy the most popular bath product, the Bloodtype Bath.
After sundown, we headed to Akihabara. No pictures were taken; had I brought the camera, I probably couldn’t have fit into 90% of the stores we visited.
Akihabara is truly a nerd paradise – stores selling electronics, games, and manga as far as the eye can see. It’s also overwhelming in the crowded dark; after two hours, the jetlagged and fatigue set in and we were forced to retreat. We plan to return later in the week.