Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

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Numark Mixtrack Pro

Long time no see! An incredibly chaotic summer this year, but good news on the podcasting front is that I picked up a mix controller to use alongside the mixing software on my Mac. I tried a Vestax Spin when I was back in London about 6 weeks ago, but upon getting back to Tokyo decided to go with this baby instead. It’s taken care of the cue / monitor issues that come with using mixing software with a normal soundcard (i.e. only having one channel and therefore no way to hear the track you’re trying to mix) and not only that, it’s actually possible to scratch on it which I didn’t expect. So, I made a video and put it on YouTube. I’ve got plans for some podcasts which I intend to create sometime very soon.


Mobile Phone Signal Coming to Tokyo Metro

Like most underground railway systems in the world, on the Tokyo Metro you can often use your phone at the stations along the way, but you can’t use them in the tunnels in between stations. Well all this is slowly set to change by the looks of things as the 3 main mobile phone providers, Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank have announced they are going to gradually introduce service to the tunnels. It’s still a no-no to talk on the phone while on the train but it’s going to make it a lot nicer for browsing the web and using apps that require connection to the internet. It’s certainly good news to me.


Flowers Outside The Ginza Apple Store

Flowers Outside The Ginza Apple Store

It’s more than a week since Steve Jobs sadly passed away, and outside the Apple Store in Tokyo’s most famous shopping district of Ginza, tributes continue to pile-up in the form of flowers, cards, post-it notes and even half-eaten apples. I’m sure it’s the same outside Apple Stores all over the world – I just thought I’d post this to show that Japan is no exception. Devices here have been hugely popular, although a little bit slow to get started, and up until now, only available on one carrier, Softbank. All this is set to change with the release of the iPhone 4S (the iPhone 4Steve) as it will be available soon also on AU, a really popular carrier with a good brand image. This may be why pre-orders and early adoptions of the 4S in Japan have smashed the previous record set by the iPhone 4. It might also be attributed to the death of Steve Jobs pushing this release to the fore. And of this I think Steve Jobs would be very happy; even in death he was launching and promoting the Apple products he loved so much.


Tokyo Metro Staff Using iPad

Tokyo Metro iPad

As part of their Metro Smile initiative, Tokyo Metro are introducing iPads for station staff to use in order to help people navigate the complicated subway system. They can plan routes, zoom and pan an interactive network map, and also access station plans that show the exits and platforms, etc. I think this is aimed at people from out of town, tourists and the elderly. I could never see myself ever needing to use this service. If you’ve got an iPhone, this service is completely redundant, and even if you haven’t, I would say the map above the ticket machine is enough for people who’ve been living in Tokyo for any period of time. The fact that they are using iPads though, shows how the Japanese have really embraced Apple products, since the iPhone and iPad came out especially. In that sense, I’m all for it – regardless of how useless it is to me.

You can see it in action in this follwing clip:

(Sorry, Nihon Television don’t allow embedding.)


Sony Retro Battery Vending Machine

Sony Battery Vending Machine

Like any traveler, I love stumbling across relics from a bygone age, so I couldn’t help but take a picture of this Sony battery vending machine when I came across it on the street in Tokyo. It’s the only one I’ve seen of these, but there are lots of other examples of slightly antiquated technology dotted around the city and lots of bizarre vending machines besides. From looking at it, I would say it rarely gets used, if ever, but only stands now as a monument to a time when people’s need for batteries was at its highest in the 80’s or 90’s. I really like the multicoloured stripes on it.


In The Glitter

This is the movie I made to celebrate the millions of neon lights in Tokyo. In Tokyo you can’t see the stars at night due to light pollution, but that’s OK, the Japanese made their own constellations. Next time you’re in Tokyo at night, remember to look up!


The Way I Work

The Way I Work

I don’t usually put techie stuff on here, but I wanted to talk about what, in my view, is the best web development environment you can have for a freelancer or a small team, especially if you’re pushed for space and have a restrictive budget. Now I don’t care what other people think but I believe that if you’re involved in designing interfaces and user experiences, and especially if you’re in any way involved in typography, you should be on a Mac. I live in Tokyo, so space is at a premium, therefore I use a MacBook Pro to save space and also to give myself the option of working in a cafe or while traveling. After all, with the right amount of RAM the MBP is as powerful as a desktop, give or take. Having said that, for design work the screen on the laptop is probably not sufficient, so I also have an Apple Widescreen Cinema Display. I usually run the MacBook Pro in clamshell mode when it’s connected to the Cinema Display, although it is of course possible to use the laptop screen as a second monitor. I have a wired network at home because speeds are reliable that way, and I don’t want to be bathed in constant radiation living in such a small apartment. At the center of this is the network hub which is in turn connected to the broadband router. The network hub allows me to easily add other machines to the network should I be working with someone else on a project and also connects to the server which is a Mac Mini. The Mac Mini is perfect as a server as it is small, silent and energy efficient. The great thing about Mac OS X is that I can schedule it to shutdown and startup at any given time. Right now it automatically shuts down at midnight (I seldom work past that time nowadays) and then restarts at 8.00am. This saves power and is therefore better for the environment. When the server starts up, Apache and MySQL start up automatically too and I don’t have to do anything. The server sits on a bookshelf and has no keyboard or mouse connected to it. If I need to administer the server, I just open up Mac OS X’s screen sharing feature and do everything through there. Backups are made through Mac OS X’s Time Machine to an external HD, so client’s work and all other data on both the workstation and the server is safe should anything happen. Couple this with SVN version control for scripts and it’s all I will ever need for my home development environment. It’s not even that expensive!


Canon EOS Kiss X4

Canon EOS Kiss X4

As an early Christmas present my folks got me a new camera as I seem to be doing more and more with photographs and video these days. It’s only an entry-level DSLR, but it’s the Canon EOS Kiss X4, the brand new offering from Canon and the image quality, the controls, the hi-def video and the body design are all impressive. I couldn’t decide whether to buy a Nikon D90 or even Nikon’s cheapest DSLR, the 3100, but after I tried them in Bic Camera I went with the Canon.

I still don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to professional photography but I’ve used it a lot since I bought it and I’ve exhausted the preset modes and the ‘creative’ setting which allows you some control over exposure and depth of field etc. so I think I’m ready to start digging around in the full manual settings. The pictures you see below in the post about the changes on Ginza Street in the last year were all taken with this camera but I still have some way to go until I’m getting the exact results I’m after.


Draft Beer on ANA Flights

Draft Beer on ANA Flights

The Japanese love affair with beer is evident again in this latest move by Japanese airline ANA to install draft beer dispensers in the galleys of their domestic flights. They’ve wisely decided not to offer the service on their international routes, and have also wisely decided to limit the number of glasses available to 20 (40 on one of the Okinawa routes that uses a larger jet), to stop things really getting out of control. Instead, you can enjoy a cold draft beer responsibly at the outrageous cost of ¥1000 (£7, $11, €9) per glass. Initial reports actually show that the drinking vessels will be made of plastic, another good safety move. The big question right now is, which beer company has the contract? There doesn’t seem to be any information anywhere on this, but my money is on Asahi Super Dry. They’re always up for breaking new ground. After all, this is the first time draft beer has been served from a keg on a plane due to the high pressures involved and it has taken a combined effort from ANA, electronics company Hoshizaki Denki, and said unnamed drinks company to make it possible. Anyone who has taken one of the flights and tried it for themselves, please let us know what brand they’re serving in the comments thread.


9h Capsule Hotel Kyoto

9h Capsule Hotel Kyoto

The capsule hotel concept has been familiar to the Japanese for several decades, but still hasn’t taken off in the west. This may have been because of the often tacky and unrefined nature of the capsule hotels themselves, or an inbuilt response to unfamiliar concepts such as these as being weird and uninviting. Japan has never had any such problem embracing novel or strange solutions to everyday life, but when I was living in the UK, I certainly couldn’t have imagined them taking off. Even so, they would make great alternatives to expensive inner city hotels, could prove extremely useful in airports (as we saw during the recent disruption caused by the Icelandic volcanic eruption), and could even provide shelter for late night revelers in urban areas, maybe even reducing drink driving.

If it ever were to cross the continents and make it to the west, let’s hope it arrives in the form of Kyoto’s new 9h Capsule Hotel designed by Fumie Shibata of Design Studio S. The name 9h comes from the concept of having 1 hour to shower, 7 hours to sleep, and 1 hour to rest (a total of 9 hours), although you can actually stay anything up to 17 hours in one day. The thing that really sets this capsule hotel apart from all the others that have gone before are the futuristic minimalist interiors, excellent facilities and the technologically advanced features, such as the biorhythm-aware Panasonic pod management systems that wake guests individually with simulated dawns of controlled lighting instead of noisy alarm clocks. Really though, it’s the industrial design that I love about this project. It is perfectly aligned with the discerning tastes famous in Kyoto with sleek black, dark wood and brilliant white being found throughout. The design of the electronic elements, the shapes of the capsule windows and the tasteful graphic design further reinforce the Japanese feel and serves to firmly set this apart from the awful Yotel at London Heathrow and makes the Nite Nite hotels look distinctly average.

I’m thinking of taking a trip to Kyoto soon, so I’ll make sure I spend one night here. I’ve never been so excited about the idea of sleeping in any other type of accommodation. That means something, surely.


Docomo – Who is my Boss?

Docomo - Who is my Boss?

UPDATE: Insiders at NTT Communications (in the same groupd of companies as Docomo) tell me the viral could be a build-up to Docomo’s launch of Micro SIMs sold without handsets, or even the release of its first unlocked handset (legislation in Japan has ruled that carriers must now sell phones unlocked so the customer can switch carrier and keep their existing handset).

There’s a new campaign taking place right now for Japanese mobile phone carrier Docomo, and it has a really crappy URL: However, despite Docomo’s inability to choose a good web address for their viral, they have certainly poured a lot of money into this campaign, with posters literally all over the city and even taking over the huge screens at Shibuya crossing. If you check the website, you’ll see that it’s counting down to something which is going to happen on the 11th May 2010. What could it be? And why is Darth Vader involved? And why is it called ‘Who is my Boss’? Tune in for an update on the 11th (Tuesday).


Nissan Land Glider – The Zen of Electric Cars

Nissan Land Glider

Now showing in the Nissan Gallery Ginza is Nissan’s new concept car, and I got this snap of it (above). It seats just one person, is zero-emission and has a steering wheel like a yoke from an aeroplane cockpit which, as you turn it, causes the car to lean into corners. The vehicle is practically silent and looks graceful in this YouTube video:


The Japanese ATM

Japanese ATM

Often it’s the mundane, easily taken for granted things I find in Japan that fascinate me most. Sometimes it’s the small differences but, in the case of the Japanese ATM, it’s a world apart from the UK equivalent I’m used to. You can probably tell by looking at it that it’s pretty unique in the world of ATM’s, but this is the ATM at the bank I bank with, and I’ve got some interesting facts about it.

The first thing you’ll notice is the screen. There’s an animated male and female teller that welcome you to the machine with a bow and a robotic ‘irasshaimase’ (‘welcome!’ – lit. ‘come in’). Then, you’ll get a bow every time a request is received or when you finally end your ATM session. Finishing said session can take time depending on your Japanese reading skill and general ability to decipher unfamiliar screens filled with flashing messages, numeric matrices and any number of other offers for services and information superfluous to your requirements.

Having navigated the touch screen successfully, you might then have to get comfortable with the other hatches, slots and gadgets outside your current schema. The interface to the right of the screen (near to which is a complimentary calculator – not chained to the counter) looks like a smaller secondary keypad or possibly cup holder but is, in fact, a biometric scanner for your palm. In a super-security-conscious modern day Japan, a 4 digit ID number is too risky for some people. If this is the case, they can go into a branch during business hours and get their palm scanned in order to make use of this secure, labour-saving feature (it might be preferable for visually impaired customers too).

Moving in an anti-clockwise direction around the machine, directly above the palm scanner is the bill hatch. This is the hatch that not only dispenses, but also accepts deposits of Japanese bank notes. Of course, it’s capable of counting banknotes and verifying their authenticity, and even unfolding, uncreasing and flattening them out if need be, but what I find most useful about this hatch is that it’s almost impossible to leave the money behind. It makes a pretty loud noise when opening to dispense notes, but also continues to do so until it finally closes automatically and returns the money to the customer’s account, in the event of the notes not being taken. It made a novel change from the usual slot from which notes, in a variety of ages and conditions, are ejected from in the UK or Europe. Suffice it to say, the notes that come out of a Japanese ATM always look like they’ve been freshly minted. Any other condition would simply be unacceptable here.

So onto the card slot, which is unremarkable – but then you have its wider counterpart on the left labeled ‘passbook’. This slot does indeed accept a passbook, or bankbook. You insert this in order to get your statement recorded. Transactions in and out, charges, transfers and so on. First, you find the correct page to insert it on. It doesn’t matter if the previous printout of your statement finishes halfway down the page, the machine will detect the point to continue printing from and will even turn the page in order to continue printing records that span pages. Upon running out of pages, you will be prompted to order a new passbook through the ATM touchscreen, or you will just be given the book back once printing is completed, whichever comes first.

Beneath the passbook slot is the coin hatch. As you may have guessed, this dispenses coins and accepts the deposit of coins too. It’s pretty unusual to draw coins from an ATM, but it’s even more suprising to find you can pay them into your bank. However, don’t go pouring thousands of ¥1 and ¥5 coins into the hatch as they won’t be accepted. However, if you do test this rule and your coin hatch ends up spasmodically chewing on 6 months worth of shrapnel, you can use the handy telephone embedded directly in the bottom-left of the ATM to place a maintenance request, but make sure you leave before they get there.


Micro Men, The Story of Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC)

Micro Men on the BBC

I’m a little upset about this, because I just got back from a visit to the UK, and it looks like I’m going to miss Micro Men, the new BBC Four drama series telling the story of the life and inventions of the legendary ZX Spectrum creator, Sir Clive Sinclair. I had a ZX Spectrum 128k when I was a kid (that was to be my second computer, the Oric 1 was my first) and it was important in cultivating my love for electronics. I also know that Clive Sinclair was an erratic megalomaniac and genius, so with all the retro technological geekery piled on, this looks set to be an unmissable show.

UPDATE: Maybe you can watch it in BBC’s iPlayer (only supposed to be available to people in the UK) if you’re a wizzkid.


Yamanote Train Driver

Ever wondered what it’s like to drive a Tokyo JR train? Actually, I hadn’t until I got a rare chance to see the driver doing his thing. Usually the glass is smoked or there’s a screen obstructing your view, and I’ve never seen this again since. Check out the illegible display on his computer screen!