Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tokyo Travel Tip #6: wouldn't it be cool to live here?

Yes, it would be cool, and you could do it, too.  Here's how.

First, let's assume that you do not have millions of dollars at your disposal, and you don't want to stay for a full year.  You just want to stay longer than a week.  What are your options?

1.  Getting in.  
Upon arrival in Japan you'll pass through immigration.  Tell them you're here on holiday.  So long as you don't have a criminal past, you'll get your passport stamped with a tourist visa, which is good for 90 days.  

Please note: don't try to overstay your visa.  Japanese immigration takes this stuff very seriously, and you will not be happy when they find out.  They may kick you out of the country and ban you from returning, or they may throw you in visa jail for a while.  

2.  Where to stay 
Assuming three months in a hotel isn't in your budget, you could stay in a hostel.  Hostels are cheap, and easy to arrange through sites like hostelworld.com.  Plus, you've got an ever-changing international cast of characters to make friends and hang out with.  

A bit more expensive, but also a bit nicer, is the option of a share house.  Share houses are usually smaller buildings in residential neighborhoods where you can rent a private room or a shared room.  Bathrooms, shower rooms, and kitchens are for common use.  There are loads of share houses here.  Want me to Google that for you?  

People who live in share houses are mostly international students, international English teachers, or young Japanese professionals who are looking for relatively inexpensive living accommodations.  In other words, this is not like living in Animal House.  This is not a place for you if you want to go get wasted every night, stumble in a 2am and blast Foreigner's Greatest Hits.  

Finally, there are companies that specialize in short-term leases for foreigners.  Right now, I rent from Fontana.  I like Fontana because they were really helpful and kept the whole process was simple and stress-free.  Plus, Fontana does 3-month leases, which is nice.  The accommodations are by no means luxurious, but for about $750 USD/mo. (which I can afford because I have a job), I have a furnished apartment in central Tokyo.  It's tiny, it's minimal, it's quiet, and it's mine.

3.  Eating
You gotta keep it cheap, right?  You're in luck.  Lawson 100 is sort of like a convenience store meets grocery store meets dollar store.  Pretty much everything in the store costs ¥100.  

Now, before get all yicked out about dining at the dollar store, remember this: the Japanese don't go and get a week's worth of groceries on Sunday morning.  They buy food every day.  Freshness is everything here, so you are not purchasing day-old bread and nearly-moldy meat.  It ain't Whole Foods organic hippie granola, but it is fresh and tasty.  ALL of my groceries come from Lawson 100, and I spend maybe $10/day on home-cooked meals.  

4.  Getting a job
Many countries have working visa deals with Japan.  The U.S. is not one of them.  Unless you're fluent in Japanese, the only real option you have is working as an English teacher, and you're not getting that job if you're only staying a few months.  So save up some money.

5.  Money
I think that if you were really careful, walked a lot instead of taking the train a lot, cooked in instead of eating out, and didn't spend lots on crappy souvenirs, you could get by on $1000/month (not including rent).  That means you're not clubbing much.  If instead you like doing lots of long walks, exploring, hanging out, writing, and reading, then you could make it happen. It would take discipline, but it could be done. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tokyo Travel Tip #5: get you some coffee

The first morning on my very first day in Tokyo back in 2012, I needed coffee badly.  I walked out of my dingy hostel and into a charming little place called Cafe Beethoven.  I asked for a cup of coffee to go, and was informed that they didn't do that sort of thing.  So I had a seat and thought, okay, I'll sit and and have a few cups.  I got exactly one cup and a slice of toast for the bargain price of $9.  Both the coffee and the toast sucked.  Later, I tried the fabled hot coffee in a can, and it was no better.

One thing is for certain: most Japanese coffee is baaaad.  It's watery, flavorless, and utterly unimpressive. Thankfully, other options abound.

1.  Doutor Coffee is a chain cafe that sucks even worse than Cafe Beethoven.  Avoid at all costs.

2.  Excelsior Caffe is a chain that has pretty good coffee.  Not great, but not hard to find, and not too expensive.

3.  There is a fucking Krispy Kreme in Shibuya.  The coffee is fine, and they have neon-green doughnuts shaped like cats.

4.  There are a number of Tully's Coffee outlets here too.  Tullys is okay in my book.

5.  Ah, Starbucks.  The gold standard of chain cafes, where you will pay about $3.75 for a grande cup of drip coffee.  Ow.  But then you remember the humiliation you experienced at the hands of the staff at Cafe Beethoven, and you know it's worth every yen.  By the way, don't expect free refills on drip coffee.  But make sure to retain your Starbucks receipt.  You'll see the words "one more coffee" printed there.  Take that receipt to any Starbucks (on that same day only) and get another cup of drip coffee for a mere ¥100 ( about $1).  

6.  In some conbinis, on or near the front counter you'll see machines that make one cup of coffee at time.  Basically, you'll have four choices: hot latte, iced latte, iced coffee, and hot coffee.  These one-shot machines are usually about ¥150, and they make decent coffee.  Pay for it first, then a clerk will give you a cup. Brew.  Drink.  Awaken the coffee beast within.

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Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly: steven@stevenfordphoto.com

Tokyo Travel Tip #4: eating on your feet

You gotta eat, right?  Of course you do.  So eat smart and have fun.

1.  The word conbini is a Japanese adaptation of convenience store. Here in Tokyo you'll find 7-11, Circle K, SunKus, and my favorite, Family Mart (I fucking love Family Mart. More later).  Want a quick snack you can walk and eat?  Go into any conbini and you'll see big warming boxes on the front counter.  In them, you'll find hot dogs, corn dogs (sometimes called "American Dog"), meatballs on sticks, steamed Chinese buns, and fried chicken cutlets.  It's not very classy, but if you want a quick n' mostly tasty snack, this will work.

2.  We've all heard about vending machines selling used panties.  Sorry pervs, we're not covering that here.  You will find vending machines everywhere, and they've got what you need.   Soda, fruity drinks, warm coffee, cold coffee.... By the way, if you enjoy watery, flavorless coffee, you will LOVE vending machine coffee.

3.  You've got a fried chicken wrapper in one hand and an empty can of shitty coffee in the other.  Now why, in this megametropolis, the capitol of a major industrialized nation, is it so damn hard to find a trash can?  (This is why. Thanks, Internet!)  If you have some trash you need to get rid of, you have three choices.  One: look for a vending machine.  There will be recycling bins next to most vending machines, and you can just toss your trash in there.  Two: Look for a conbini.  They often have trash cans out front.  Three: look for a little pile of trash, cans, bottles, or busted umbrellas that someone else has begun and tuck it in there.  Problem solved.

4.  Need a taste of home?  It's not hard to find Subway, McDonald's, Burger King, and TGIFriday's.  There's even a Wendy's in Roppongi.


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Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly: steven@stevenfordphoto.com

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tokyo Travel Tip #3: assorted links

For further info, here are some good links to check out:

An excellent place to start are the Tokyo episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  They're available on iTunes for a few bucks, and even if you don't much like Bourdain, the episodes will provide you with some great things to do and places to go.


Visual art:

Tokyo Art Beat:   http://www.tokyoartbeat.com/

By the way, Tokyo Art Beat has an iPhone app.  It's $2 and worth it because it has maps of all the venues so you can find your way.

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum Of Photography:  http://syabi.com/e/contents/index.html


National Museum Of Modern Art: http://www.momat.go.jp/english/


Tokyo Wonder Site:  http://www.tokyo-ws.org/english/


General Info:


Time Out Tokyo:  http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo


Go Tokyo:  http://www.gotokyo.org/eventlist/en/list


Reddit Tokyo:  http://www.reddit.com/r/Tokyo/


Reddit JapanTravel:  http://www.reddit.com/r/JapanTravel/


Tokyo Damage Report's Punk Rock Tour Guide:  http://www.hellodamage.com/top/tokyo-tour-guide/


Live music:


Tokyo Gig Guide:  http://www.tokyogigguide.com/



Misc. advice:

If you plan a night out drinking, make sure to search for recent postings on "Roppongi scams."  Even in this very safe city, bad things can happen.

Also, search for "Tokyo monk scam."  You'll see the so-called monks in the touristy areas, offering cheap stickers in exchange for "donations."  Just say no.


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Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly: steven@stevenfordphoto.com

Tokyo Travel Tip #2: getting around

Okay, you've got your smartphone and your pocket wifi.  Time to have a wander.

Getting from the airport to the city:

I've always flown into Narita, so all of this is specific to Narita.  I don't know anything about Haneda.  You can take a bus into the city for about $25, but it will take about two hours (plus another hour to get from the dropoff to your hotel).  I always take the Keisei Skyliner.  It's about $45 one-way, but the seats are super-comfortable, the ride is smooth and quiet, the view is nice, it takes only 40 minutes, and in every seat there are outlets for recharging your phone.  For me, it's worth the extra expense.

Some notes regarding the train:


-  When you get your Skyliner ticket, the clerk may say something like, "please hurry."  They mean it.  Every single time I buy a ticket, the train is set to depart in about two minutes.  There are nice clean bathrooms on the train, so don't worry.


-  All seats are assigned.  Just get on the train right away so you don't miss it, then find your seat.


-  Near the doors, there are luggage racks for your big suitcases.


-  Nobody is going to steal your stuff.  You could leave your phone and wallet on your seat and disappear for 15 minutes.  They'll both be there when you get back.


-  Train announcements will be made in Japanese and English.

Once you're in the city:

In all subway and train stations, you'll see machines for purchasing a rechargeable card for using buses and trains.  There are two: SUICA and PASMO.  Pick one.  They'll both work on all Tokyo trains and buses, so I guess you can pick the character you find the cutest.  If you have time, get one at the airport before you head in to the city.


I always load mine with ¥10,000 (about $100 USD).  I'll spend about ¥500 / $5 a day on the train, so it makes sense.  Don't try to buy individual tickets for rides.  It'll take forever and you won't save any money.

Using the trains and subways:

There are, I think, six or seven different private companies running trains and subways in Tokyo.  You'll find paper maps everywhere, but some of the maps show some lines and not others.  I use an iPhone app called MyTokyoNavi.  It's very simple and will give the simplest routes.  However, you may want to use more than one app to double-check.


The JR Yamanote line is going to be your best friend and worst enemy.  You may end up using it a lot because it runs in a big loop through central Tokyo, but of course a billion other people are going to want to use it, too.  If you can, avoid trains during morning and evening rush hours.  That is, unless you enjoy being compressed.

If you ride the Yamanote line late after 10pm on Fridays or Saturdays, expect to see some drunk locals puking.  It's normal here, and somewhat acceptable.  Just watch where you walk, if you catch my drift.

Finally, Tokyo's trains do not run all night long.  They will have their final runs around midnight, so if you're planning on doing some late-night drinking, try to do it close to where you're staying unless you want to keep drinking until 5am when the trains start running again.

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Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly: steven@stevenfordphoto.com

Tokyo Travel Tip #1: pocket wifi

Before we begin, know this: I've lived in Tokyo only a few months, and before that I visited a handful of times.  So this is by no means the definitive guide to visiting the city; it's just what's worked for me.  

That said, Tokyo is fucking amazing and you cannot help but have a blast.  Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly: steven@stevenfordphoto.com

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Okay, so you're coming to Tokyo?  Rent a pocket wifi.  Why?

1.  Paper maps and guidebooks will be beyond useless here (see #2).


2.  I hope you're a smartphone user and you know how to use a map application here.  You'll need one to not be lost all the time, every day.  The streets here are not named in the way we from the U.S. think of street names, and the addressing system is so arcane that even some lifelong Tokyo residents don't quite understand it.  Plus, the streets are so numerous, narrow, and winding that it's insanely easy to get lost.  I've gotten lost in my own neighborhood barely 300 feet from my apartment.  Ever been to London?  It's like that, but way more confusing.


3.  Free wifi is nearly nonexistent here.  You'll find it in McDonald's and Starbucks (yes, coffee lovers, there are loads of Starbucks here), but in order to access it, you need to sign up at home.  You can't sign up on the spot.  Why?  The Japanese thrive on bureaucracy, I guess.


4.  Sometimes, you can't even rely on your hotel for free wifi.  The first time I came, 
I was in a glorified hostel that had one ancient PC running some creaky old version of Windows, and it cost $1 for every ten minutes of use.  I've also been in hotels that had wifi only in the lobby, and only ethernet cables in the rooms.  Not so useful for the iPad.

5.  I've always rented a pocket wifi from globaladvancedcomm.com.  It's not terribly expensive, and you'll get a small discount for liking their FB page.  Also, you can have them send it to the post office at the airport and pick it up before catching the train into the city.


6.  With your groovy pocket wifi, you can leave the bulky guidebook in the room.  Make your own custom Google Map with all the places you want to visit, and wander freely!


7.  If you have T-Mobile, you will have free international data.  I've got T-Mobile, and I find that it works in a pinch, but it's only 3G, so it's slow.  Fine for emailing and Twittering, not great for Instagramming and Facebookery.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TOKYO TIME: You just gotta do it.

Getting ready to head out for Tokyo.  All packed up, breakfast is done, drinking some coffee now.  Taking a few minutes to pound this out.  It's going to sound truncated and messy because I'm not editing, just writing.  No time.  No need to edit because really, I'm trying to put myself in the right mindset: don't think, just do.  Be fearless.  Work on instinct, and don't resist any emotion that comes along.  Allow those emotions to flow into my eye and onto the image.  Lift the camera and shoot at every opportunity.

David Alan Harvey is the wise, and I'm glad I watched this.  It's good to hear him talk because he says it like it is:

"This time yesterday I was completely bummed out.  I couldn't get all the elements together in my head...  So I'm totally prepared for the fact that this could be a big fuckin' failure.  You just gotta do it."

So here I go.  Doing it.  Scary as hell.  Exciting as hell.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New blog post: no #film; #Tokyo part 2

You know, I never did shoot any film while the Leica was visiting New Jersey.  For years I loved film and thought it was the girl of my dreams. At one point I even wanted to get a film tattoo, but after of five years of shooting digital, I don't miss film at all and will be happy if I never have to shoot it again.

I just can't bring myself to do it.  I hate paying $5 for one roll, then another $6 for processing, so I'm not going a lab.  And I'm not going to do it cheap through Walgreens, because I've seen how they handle the film (shudder).  I won't process it myself, especially since I gave all that stuff away a few years back.  

What really makes me not want to shoot film are the ten million little things that can and do go wrong.  I hate it when a tiny bit of dust gets in the camera and makes scratches from frame one to frame 36.  I hate when the sprockets slip and I get double exposures.  I hate wiping dust off of the negs only to see more dust a moment later.  I hate having a toolbox crammed with assorted brushes and blowers that don't work all that well.  I hate having to grab that little bottle of oil to fill in the scratches that my furious cleaning left behind.  I hate having to spot my prints because of the dust I missed.  I hate running out of film.  I hate fretting over the right film-dev combination.  I hate having to run to the store because I ran out of fix, having to drive across town to drop off the spent fix only to be told, “we don't take that anymore.”  Worst of all, I hate dropping it off with someone who says, “oh yeah, we just dump this stuff down the drain.”


So yeah, I left the film camera to gather dust and shot with my old, duct-taped Olympus.  I got back to what's important: not thinking about anything. Shooting on instinct.  Shooting what I feel, not what I think other people will like.  


I got the Leica back in June, and that was good because the Oly sucks when it comes to manual focus and exposure.  Also, between May and October, I went on a fucking tear, shooting nearly every day of the week.  It was good, just being alone with my camera, slowly refining my vision.  That's not to say that I've arrived, but that I'm coming to accept my photos without comparing them to other people's photos.  

Rather than coming up with my own pithy sayings, I'll quote what showed up in my Reader feed just a few days ago:

You Don’t Need What Other Artists Have


…the important point here is not that you have—or don’t have—what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. whatever they have is something needed to do their work—it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. their magic is theirs. you don’t lack it. you don’t need it. it has nothing to do with you. period.

http://goo.gl/uIVXN


Now, I've known that for a long time, but it's taken me nearly ten years to actually accept it.  I'm me, and I'll never be Moriyama, or Gilden, or Jacob Aue Sobol, though I'll always admire them, and probably always be jealous of them on some level.  But I have what I need to do what I do.  Anything else is empty and false.

(side note: the above quote sounds a lot like a concise summary of Art & Fear, which is the greatest book ever and which every creative person should read. http://goo.gl/TsKrt)

Summer 2012 in Seattle was good.  A good, unrestrained, creative time.  A challenging time.  A worthwhile time.

....

Back in March, I spent a week in Tokyo and hated it.  Hated it.  Why?  Well...

1.  I made the mistake of staying in Taito, where you can find cheap, adequate, no-frills hotels, but it's 10 miles outside of the center of the city.  That meant I was spending loads of time on the subway.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I ended up spending more money on tickets than I'd intended.  Plus, being dependent on the subway makes it hard to stay out late because the whole damn thing shuts down at 1am, so I needed to rush back to the hotel every night.

2.  I hated the food.  I swear, if I never eat another grain of white rice, it'll be too soon.  I'm from the midwest, dammit!  I need MAN-FOOD!  I need MEAT!  I thought I'd get by cheaply by getting food from supermarkets, but didn't know I'd pay $6 for six eggs or $8 for two apples.  Not exaggerating.  Maybe I just chose the wrong markets.  It was cheaper to eat at conveyor-belt sushi places or Yoshinoya, but like I said, the rice...  it's 8 months later and I still dislike eating white rice.

3.  I got raging sick while there.  Pretty much on the day I landed, I got a cold that stayed with me for two weeks after I got home.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I couldn't even concentrate on shooting.  I shot only a few hundred photos and spent most of my time wandering without shooting.

4.  I regarded the few photos I did shoot as absolute garbage.  After I got home, I didn't even look at them for months.

5.  I went to Tokyo to shoot, and left feeling like a failure.  I hated it and never wanted to go back.

Fast forward to the present: November 2012.  I'm going back to Tokyo.

Why?  Because after letting the photos sit for months, I looked at them again, and I saw something in them.  I saw how I felt while I was there.  I shot some good photos after all, and I need to go back and shoot some more.  I have the start of a project.  The start.  Maybe none of those photos will survive the final edit, but I'm going back to spend more time there and concentrate on shooting every day.  I'll sink in and be taken away by the flow of the city.

I'm fascinated by big cities, and that's part of the project, but it's a story for another day.

The project as it is right now:  Tokyo Sick







Saturday, May 19, 2012

After 4 digital years it's time for #film #photography






My beloved Leica M8.2 has the dreaded vertical line syndrome, so I've had to mail her off to the repair center in New Jersey.  I'll probably get her back in 2 or three weeks. 

In the meantime, I've decided that I really hate my formerly beloved Olympus E-P1 because (1) the shutter and aperture controls sit right under where I hold the camera, so even tiny bumps screw up the exposure, and (2)  the batteries won't hold a charge anymore, and that cuts down on the amount of time I can go out shooting.

So the Olympus is going to gather the dust I've brushed off of my first real film rangefinder, the sturdy and faithful Canon QL17.

The next few weeks will be a challenge.  The camera is 40 years old, but still humming along so that doesn't worry me (I'm actually older than the camera, so if it fails, I'm probably next).  What worries me is that I've come to depend on the Leica's LCD screen to check my exposure, and now I'm shooting a camera without a working light meter.  A few years back, I'd calculate exposure by watching what the light was doing, and eventually I learned to trust what I was seeing and forget about the meter.  So now I'm being forced to regain that skill, and I'll have do my best to make sure not to lose it again.