Cat Island

Today we went to Tashirojima, also known as Cat Island. 

Tashirojima is a small island off the coast of Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, right by the epicenter of the quake and consequent tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011

Once populated by some 1000 people it now homes just around 100, and at least twice as many cats. Maybe more, and the number grows constantly. 

 On the path that links the Northern port to the Southern town lies an abandoned hospital and several houses now reclaimed by luscious vegetation and possibly some nature spirit, testimony of the decreasing human population. 

Only a small helipad of all the hospital’s facilities remains maintained, suggesting that the small human population does not need a full clinic all the time and that in case of emergency the only way to leave the island is via helicopter, because after the last ferry leaves any latecomer will be stranded. 

 The only way to reach the island is to take a ferry from Ishinomaki. The town itself has seen better days, and reconstruction is still undergoing after the tsunami hit hard. 

People are really nice and welcoming, like everywhere in Japan, and this kindness combined with the run-down look of the area gives the visitor an sense of saudade that I only felt in post-crisis Portugal and novels set in Innsmouth. 

Please don’t misunderstand: I loved the place, and the people. You should visit and feel that: you can almost touch the sense of beauty and freshness now lost in a beautiful place that has seen better days. I just learned a word in Japanese that describes that: natsukashii

Let’s get back to the point: Cat Island. 

You drop off the boat and are welcomed by two cats that meow and look almost human. They wait by the ferry, every day it is legit to assume, and welcome visitors with their verses. 

If you are a nice person you bought food before hand and feed them and proceed in the forest.

Following the path you will meet several other cats, some crow and several wooden buildings with trees and bamboo canes growing within their walls. 

Several porcelain pots lie scattered near the road, usually by a tree, probably part of some (burial?) local tradition. 

After twenty minutes on the path you find a shrine with several dolls, painted stones and other cat-related items. 

The shrine was built by fishermen many a year ago and shows how important cats are for the locals.

Apparently, cats were brought on the island to prey upon rats and mice that were a major threat to the silk worms used to produce high quality nets. 

At the time Tashirojima had a strong industry and several fishermen spent time there to get their nets done. Cats enjoyed the lack of predators on the island and scraps from the daily fishing. 

 The shrine was built after two fishermen accidentally killed one of those cats dropping a stone, and feeling bad decided to do something to celebrate the friendship between the two species. Since then cats and local population have become one thing, and the shrine celebrates this union. 

 On your way many and many more cats approach you from every direction. If you still have food they will be happy to have some and will follow you, or better guide you through the daedalus of small roads that at one point split the main path. 

It’s easy to get distracted and get on the wrong way, only to realise that half an hour later when you end up in a cul-de-sac in the middle of the forest. 

 You walk back, try to figure out where you came from and where you should go to get your ferry before it’s too late. 

It’s becoming dark, and your phone ran out of battery. The printed map you got at the ferry terminal in Ishinomaki is useful, but without GPS or a compass it’s still a bit complicated to navigate around. 

 Eventually you manage to reach the ghostly town on the south end of the island. Shops are possibly closed, or open and empty behind those half-raised curtains. There is a couple of vending machines, one of which seems to have been empty for ages, a few empty houses and the noise of the ferry preparing to leave far ahead. 

 You manage to get through the narrow alleys, with your tail of cats behind you, and once you reach the pier, with the last sun you see the boat leaving without you. 

There is no inn, no reastaurant where to spend the night, there is no one except for cats and an old lady gently sweeping the leaves from her porch. 

You get there, want to ask if you can charge your phone or call someone but the only thing you can do is meow, as you lost the boat and are now a cat of the island. 

She smiles and scratches your head gently as you try harder to sound human, at no avail.

With time you will forget life outside the island.

Annunci

CHAPPiE

Hi, it has been a while. How are you?

Tonight I went to watch CHAPPiE. It was cool. I wanted it to be motherfucking awesome, instead it was just cool.

I will not spoil it for you, and I think you should definitely watch it but it is no District 9. Luckily, it’s no Elysium either. It’s somewhere in between.

Some cool things first: it’s cyberpunk.
It has got the transhuman element from Ghost in the Shell, the corporate greed of Robocop (and many, many other things from Robocop to be honest), a bit of cheesy Short Circuit-like humor and the swag hi-tech lo-life elements that we loved as kids in the ’80/90s.

Now the bad things: there are some plot elements are really really naive in the worst case, or the movie does not a good job at explaining you the setting and why some things are the way they are. It can break suspension of disbelief if you are a picky grumpy nerd. I am not talking about Tunguska-sized plot holes like in Elysium but the worldbuilding does not stand to comparison to District 9.

Some other cool things:
Yo-Landi and Ninja. ZEF are the closest thing we have to booster gangs from Cyberpunk 2020 at this point in history and they make the movie look real. Fluo automatic weapons are really neat.

Mecha design: Scouts are wonderful: rugged design for mass production, stripped to the essential. The Moose is more than a glorified ED209, it’s somehow verosimile and fits the world.

Linux: every single machine you see around runs Linux. It’s cool, I like it. Interfaces are TTY-based and while you don’t see any real hacking/coding the look of it is close enough to the real thing to make it feel realistic.

Some other bad things: I missed Die Antwoord in concert in Manchester last month and this movie made me think about that again. I almost forgot.
This also means that the soundtrack is spot on and will make you want to listen to it after the movie is over. Like I am doing now on the train, while typing this on a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard. I just miss an HMD and the squalor of this night train would add the final shade of cyberpunk to this scene.

To recap: the movie is cool, not as polished as D9 but still cool, but the added value that will give to your day is actually to make you realize how close we are to the cyberpunk world. And how cools robots are.

Said this, I am getting a Raspberry Pi 2-based robot for my birthday and a Kinect and I will step up my robot hobby. You should do the same, be nice to your robots. Soon they will be taking care of you.

Lots of stuff. And people.

There are 130 million Japanese people, 20 of which just in Tokyo.
It’s twice the population of either Italy or the UK, mostly concentrated in 20% of the land because while Japan is pretty big, a big part of its territory is mountains. This leads to a much, much higher population density in metropolitan areas and a -I assume- a series of social customs developed over the centuries to cope with that. You know the thing about Japanese people being very, very, very nice and polite? That’s true. A lot of social interactions follow standards and patterns nobody will tell you and the cultural clash for someone moving over there might be intense.
Especially from a very “liberal” country such as Italy, where things are done alla buona most of the times.

So for example while receiving or giving money to a vendor, or accepting the goods from them you should always use two hands. Same with business cards. And you should never ever take upskirt pictures on the escalator. There are signs in stations about that, seriously. For this reason Japanese phones are not allowed to take pictures without making noises, even in silent mode. This is also true for your regular iPhone if you insert a Japanese SIM card. We blew a friend’s mind with our devilish sneaky western iPhones. Not that we were taking upskirt photos. Consent and communication are paramount in erotic photography, of course.

If you want to try clothes in a shop you should remove your shoes before entering the changing room. Always, as you do when entering a house. You have to use the left hand side on the escalator and stairs in Tokyo and leave the right one to people in a hurry, and the exact opposite in Osaka. When ordering at the restaurant you have to explicitly say “the end” once done, or the waiter will just stay there hopefully waiting for an extra dish for their list. Waiters and customer service people will be extra nice to you (“domo arigato gozai masu!“), however you should be slightly lesser polite. It’s a matter of power exchange, D/s business in a sort of way. Apparently being too nice to servers is weird and confusing. That “the customer is always right” thing we have in the West is more like “the customer is the boss” around here. Be that boss, it’s important to them.

Some Japanese people are also very vulnerable to politeness in a way that allows people in the entertainment business to exploit them. There is a specific profession dedicated to that, men and women that follow you on the street and invite you in a bar for a drink. They are very polite yet persistent in what they do and apparently also effective since it is rude to refuse. Also, they often carry boobs and other mind control devices.
I haven’t seen them approaching gaijin like us, at least not in the “dangerous” districts we visited: Kabukicho in Tokyo and Dotonbori in Osaka. From what I hear many Nigerians are employed in Roppongi for the same task, but targeting westerners. It’s funny because, as I might have written before, “dangerous” districts in Japan are not as dangerous as the”just a bit shady” ones where I have lived before, either in Italy or other western countries. Japan is a damn safe place.

So far everyone we had a chance to talk to was really happy to meet us, kind people that come from far away to visit their country. They are very proud and, in all honesty, I can see why. The place is beautiful, the people generally happy and proud, everything is so unrealistically perfect I start to feel bad at the thought of what they could think of good old Europe when they come to visit.

Ah, we are based in Osaka now, by the way.
If you want to imagine Osaka think of Akira, with buildings built one on top of the other, gargantuan covered markets spanning over entire city blocks, trains and highways built on top of canals, with other bridges on top or under them, in a mix that looks like a hive city. It’s beautiful, at least for a dystopian sci-fi lover such I am.

If Tokyo looks like a city from the future, with ancient and new perfectly mixed together in a clean 2000s cyberpunkish sort of way, Osaka is hardcore ’80s cyberpunk. It’s motherfucking Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. Also the food is great, so come and visit Osaka. Seriously. It used to be called the Kitchen of Japan, and it’s still exactly like that: smokey, chaotic and filled with alcohol and juicy things.

I forgot to tell you something about our last few days in Tokyo, to be honest. We visited the fish market in the morning, which was huge and dark and full of terrors. The most amazing thing were the three-wheeled vehicles zipping around. Vaguely triangle shaped, with a large cargo pad on the back, those things have a fascinating industrial design: the engine is housed in a cilinder directly connected to a fixed gear single wheel, not steering, and it’s the whole cylinder that turns 360 around. It feels like a Landspeeder and has also something in common with the thing in Tuscany they call apino.

I am writing this on a Shinkansen from Hiroshima, where we spent the day.
How was Hiroshima? Lovely. A nice city, we were lucky enough to get there in a sunny day and we spent a hour seeing the shrine on the island of Miyajima. If you have some spare time in Japan it’s worth a visit.

In 2009 I spent some time in the basement of Pupin Hall, Columbia University, right where the original cyclotrone used by Fermi and Rabi was located and where the Manhattan Project started. Today I was where its effects were visible to the world for the first time. I am not going to write about nuclear weapons but I can tell you that if you pay a visit to the Peace Museum you will understand a lot more about many aspects of modern Japanese culture. Plus you will really really hope that North Korea (or Russia, China, India, Pakistan, etc.) will remember Von Neumann’s works on game theory. Otherwise there won’t be much people left here or anywhere else, soon.

Sex and the Citadel.

Porn. Porn never changes.
Before the Meiji restauration Japanese people could just drop by their Shunga rental of choice and bring home a painted tablet depicting scenes of sex between consenting adults, interracial sex with western males, sex with animals, sex with demons and all sorts of explicit erotic literature. I cannot find a source now but apparently this business was encouraged by the government as a form of social control necessary due to the unbalanced population of Edo,overcrowded by bachelor government officers. This changed later on, when Shunga were banned and exported abroad at the end of XIX century, going to influence western pornography. Influences from the west then came back to Japan contaminated by Dadaism generating that sort of wicked sexuality you still find in anime and manga. But this is a story for another place and another time.

Why is this important, now? Because porn of course.
And because Japanese culture is permeated by sex, and its representations.

For example, sex and religion are mixed in peculiar ways. It’s not just “religion” in the western meaning anyway, Japanese spirituality is complex and there is a diffused suspension of disbelief within the population when it comes to things such as ghost stories, small and big gods, fortune etc. I am not Freud, but I can see a fil-rouge connecting sex, death and shapeshifting fox spirits. And videogames, of course, which are the quintessential form of modern Japanese art.

I had similar feelings while visiting the Senso-Ji and Meiji-Jingu temples and Akihabara ( also known as Electric City ), which is a temple of its own.

Senso-Ji is what you would expect from a city temple: huge, splendid and surrounded by market stalls. People buy incense and scrolls and all sorts of souvenirs in a place that could disorient a time traveller. It’s really hard to tell if you are there today or two centuries ago. This if you do not take into consideration skyscaprers, to be honest. We bought some nice traditional clothing there, from old japanese vendors very happy to tell us many things we unfortunately were not able to understand.

Meiji-ji is in the middle of a splendid park on the side of Harajuku. It’s the stuff of dreams, a piece of paradise and the kind of location you would love to have for your live action roleplay games. All made out of wood (and possibly magic) it’s a piece of medieval Japan by one of the most modern neighborhoods of Tokyo. You could blink and, for an instant, spot a samurai in a corner.

On the other side of the Ancient-Modern spectre we have Akihabara. To give you an idea, think of those comic book shops, and those electronics department stores, and those small and very specialized retrogaming shops that deal in vintatge gaming, and porn. Now mix everything in a bucket and let it grow until it gets bigger than most small cities. You have a place where hundred of thousands of geeks can celebrate their own passions. It’s a sort of a temple to otaku-ness, and a very cyberpunk place. Not only for it’s countless neon lights, or the omnipresent technology in weird and unusual shapes, but also for the mix of people wandering around: salarymen in suits, neckbeards, cosplayer girls and -we have pictures- monks in with hay hats. It’s a city within a city, almost like the two temples I described earlier, and while the other two could be portals to the past, this one could be a portal to the future. If you like robots, or collect Super Famicom games, Akihabara is the place for you.

The point I want to make is: visitors in all three places look similar to my eyes. They probably came from far to visit the temple dedicated to what they hold dear and they found what they were looking for, probably. Either Senso-Ji or Meiji-Jingu gave me a sense of peace of mind and serenity, and in its own way Akihabara gave me peace and joy, after we found Chrono Triggers and Seiken Densetsu 2 and other SNES games for an incredible price ( also Ranma 1/2 and Dragon Ball Z, courtesy of my Cat) and were exposed to all sorts of weird hentai.

We had a coffee in a maid café. Actually, we had a coffee in the second maid café we found, as we had to flee from the first one because of the noise and the very sad faces of the tourists trapped in there for a forced karaoke session. I am sure someone in Japan is happy to endure that, but we are too western probably.

Akihabara contains millions of different pages of sexually explicit (yet, pixellated) magazines, centuries of movies, cosplay attire to dress up a small army, toys and shops that amount to a considerable percentage of Japanese GDP, I am sure. And yet, it was not all about it.
Many cities have red light districts, even Tokyo has one -Kabukicho, part of Shinjuku- but in this case porn was just added value to Akihabara. My idea is that geeky and kinky stuff go well together and vendors find easy to target the same audience for anime-related gadgets, videogames and schoolgirl uniforms.

Speaking of Kabukicho, we ended walking through it by accident after having read in all guides to avoid it and, well, it was embarassingly clean and safe, like everywhere else in Japan. It’s a clean mix between Amsterdam red light district and Soho. A guy approached us with a clean cut brochure with girls but we did not show interest and he was not pushy, and there were some fishy looking guys close to night club entrances, but it definitely was not a dangerous place. Just another citadel of its own, where in this case sex is the main god and “entertainment”, in form of pachinko parlors and alcohol, are supporting ones. Again, it looks like a place straight out of Blade Runner, and if you like to feel like a replicant hunter you should definitely check out this place.

Next time I will write you something about Japanese customs in terms of food and automation, like that time I ordered a random dish from a robot waiter.

Easy money

Japan looks like a land from the future, a future imagined some 30 years ago on a divergent timeline to be exact.

They have wonderous, amazing technology for some things and yet they preserve an incredible old fashioned attitude towards many more. This schizophrenic attitude is particularly evident if you are familiar with Japanese websites. They look like a stargate to the ’90s with HTML frames, gifs and all sorts of ingenious solutions for ecommerce.

I will tell you something about ecommerce. Let’s say you want to buy a ticket online. In the past our cyberpunk foretellers such as Gibson and Stephenson imagined a scenario where you plug your cyberdeck in your brain and your avatar visits a virtual shop where after exchanging a virtual token you acquire a virtual ticket that you can print with your compact inkjet. This is not the case unfortunately, but reality can beat imagination.

The EASY scenario is buying a train ticket online in the western world. You either download an app or perform your purchase online paying with bitcoin, paypal or similar or via credit card using a PCI-DSS compliant vendor you trust (and shouldn’t, anyway). In seconds you have your ticket you can print with your laserjet, or maye just a QR code to show on your phone. You are already familiar with that.

The HARD scenario is something like wanting to buy a Japan Rail Pass that allows you on any JR train in the country for a reasonable price. In order to do so you request your ticket online, await cofrmation email and reply that you confirm the info then pay via credit card and they will send you a voucher you have to save and show to a JR office with your passport in order to exchange it with the proper ticket.

The HARDCORE scenario is something like wanting to buy a ticket to the Museo D’Arte Ghibli (sic.) online. There is a graph to explain you all the passages and it involves writing a third party agency and exchanging codes between them and museum’s ticket office so they can send you a voucher you can exchange on site with a real ticket. After three emails I gave up and asked my friend In Kyoto to buy one in cash from a vending machine in a kombini and had it sent to our address in Tokyo before our arrival.

This country makes motherfucking robots and they cannot conceive a better way to process online payments. No wonder Satoshi Sakamoto decided it was a good idea create his own, he must have been frustrated.

Oh yes, we went to the Ghibli museum and it was awesome. Everything analog there, from the hand painted frames for Nausicäa to the projectors showing shorts. The place itself is a vaguely Italian looking building in a nice park, in perfect Ghibli style. Again, I think we can now understand Mr Miyazaki’s recurring topic of struggle against technology and longing for a simpler life. He must have tried to buy something via BBS or Japanese equivalent and after ten attempts decided to create Conan.

Japanese people love cash. They spend a lot of it on random things, usually really cheap (at least if you think in Pounds) and if there is you ever dreamt to buy there is probably a place in Tokyo where you will find. Possibly within a dedicated district with a relative subculture thriving.

For example my lovely Frida and I like girls dressed in french maid attire and other thigs like that, so we went to Harajuku right after jumping off the plane and we found a place bigger than most small cities full of every sort of gothic or cosplay clothing. As soon as we figure out Japanese sizes my Cat will have a new themed wardrobe. And someone else might receive a surprise, also.
This because they don’t let you try the really cool ones.

We spent lots of money on games, too. We played a custom version of Mario Kart for arcades, with turning wheel and everything (and dominated), a Gundam simulator for 10 people, with ten full inmersion pod-shaped cockpits and a game where usually you waste coins trying to get a small prize. Frida got two bags of chocolate with a finesse I never saw before. We avoided pachinko and slots, however. The zombie-like people playing those were a scary reminder of how gamble is bad.

A gamble is also asking the sushi chef “omakase” which means “chef’s choice” in a country where cod sperm is considered a delicacy. I tried my luck and got something nice I cannot spell, and only after that my gf told me the aforementioned sperm is a seasonal dish reserves for winter. Can you imagine that? “Aah, nothing better with this cold of a nice mug of hot fish sperm!”. Weird people.

The standing Sushi place was in Shibuya, the most Cyberpunk place i have ever seen. Shibuya Crossing easily puts Times Square to shame and had almost pushed Piccadilly Circus to suicide a couple of times.
It’s huge, neon lights make the place a permanent mid-day, hundred of thousands of people walking, eating, singing all while generally updating twitter in a place that looks like Blade Runner’s good twin.

Everything was beautiful until I saw my frst homeless in Japan and remembered what I felt five years ago in NYC: the future is a nice theme park only if you can spend money. Being a tourist is nice and everything, but how do locals live?
I will inquire and let you know, meanwhile enjoy some music.

new blog: of Japan and cool stuff.

Last Monday we had one of those great ideas: let’s stay awake all night on Tuesday. This seemed excellent so we would a) have a lot of time for fun until monrning b) be knackered on the plane to Tokyo and likely fall asleep before landing c) be fresh on Thursday morning for our first day in Japan.
Needless to say it did not work.

I did not sleep on Tuesday night. I did not sleep on the plane and my first day in Tokyo was so intense that when I eventually got to bed ( 2am of Friday morning ) I was starting to hallucinate. Or so said the friendly Kappa on my shoulder.

Tokyo is great, anyway.

This trip was a present for my birthday from the person I share my life, my house, my passions that involve geeky and kinky stuff, and two cats with. We met for the first time in New York almost five years ago and it was because of our blogs at the time that eventually we got together. If you are reading this you might already be familiar with mine and hers, or maybe not. We can be friends anyway.

This new blog is in English, and it will do an estensive usage of cyberpunk slang, and erotic photography, just because.

The idea is to describe our contemporary world from the point of view of someone that grew up reading cyberpunk literature (e.g. Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling), watching cyberpunk movies (e.g. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Akira), playing cyberpunk games (e.g. CP2020, Syndicate, Shadowrun) and wishing one day to see all that cool stuff. This someone (i.e. me) is now an adult and the world delivered: the first cyberglasses will be ’80s style Ray-Ban, Russia is the the big red scare once again, we have consumer level Virtual Reality, drones, cyber prostetics, self driving cars and huge economic inequality. Oh, and mass media is dominated by crap and the Internet is home of the rebels.

This is the cyberpunk future I signed up for. And I want to begin telling you of all the cool stuff we are seeing in Japan at the moment, directly from the future.