Archive for June, 2010


Tech Review

Nintendo DS is one of the most popular hand-held systems in Japan and with its popularity comes a variety of different games. With so many games, it’s impossible for all of them to make it into the United States. One game that never made it to U.S. shores is Itadaki Street, which literally translates to Top Street. Itadaki Street is a computer board game created by Square-Enix. The version I played specifically for this review was created for the Nintendo DS and featured a crossover of Super Mario and Dragon Quest characters.

A game of Itadaki Street plays out similarly to a game of Monopoly. Players start with 1,200 gold and travel around the game board purchasing properties. As properties are acquired the street (which is a collection of 4 color coded properties) goes up in value. That is where the similarities between Itadaki Street and Monopoly get a bit skewed. Since Itadaki Street is a digital board game the arrangement of the game board and number of streets are not always the same; there are however many squares that must be in each board. These squares are the bank, casino, inn, lucky square, and chance card squares.

The bank is comparable to the Go space on a Monopoly board; it’s the square where players start at the beginning of the game and it’s where the stock trade transactions take place. Players buy stocks to increase their overall net worth which is an important factor in winning a game of Itadaki Street. Stocks also give players a small cut of any transactions happening on the streets they have stocks in. The bank is also where players earn bonus money upon gaining a level which is achieved via the aforementioned chance card squares. Chance cards are a total of one-hundred different cards that have various effects on the game, such as decreasing a street’s stock value or stealing a property from another player. There are a total of five chance card squares on each board; one is a miscellaneous chance square represented by a question mark which allows the player to pick a chance card upon landing on it. The other four chance squares take their shapes from a deck of playing cards, and also allow a player to pick a chance card. However when a player passes one of the shaped squares that shape is added to their collection. Once all four shapes are collected players can go back to the bank and level up, which rewards them with a cash bonus similar to passing the Go space in Monopoly. The inn square causes players to fall asleep which takes rent cost down to zero for that player’s properties for one turn, the casino square pits players in a random game of chance for high profits, and the lucky square gives whatever player that lands on it a cut of all of their opponents monetary transactions.

Players can buy houses on their properties like in Monopoly; however a player doesn’t need to own every property of a particular street to buy one. All a player has to do is land on any property square they own and they can put money towards a house on one property of their choice. Just like Monopoly the more money you put towards the houses, the more it will cost players who land there. An interesting action players can perform is something I’ve come to call a hostile take-over; to perform this action players must land on a property square owned by an opposing player. After paying the rent players have the option of taking control of that property square but at a high cost. There are two ways to win a game of Itadaki Street, one way is to bankrupt all other players on the board, the other is reaching the board’s preset winning net worth total which varies based on which board is being played.

Graphically, Itadaki Street DS is a beautiful looking game based on Nintendo DS’s standards. The game has a great variety of characters that animate fluidly and there is a variety of stylized backgrounds for each game board. Itadaki Street’s audio leaves little to complain about with much of the game’s music paying homage to both intellectual properties. Fans of both Dragon Quest and Super Mario might be a bit disappointed to know however that they do not take control of any of the characters from either series. Instead, players must create a character that can be dressed in custom attire should they have the gold required.

There are many aspects of Itadaki Street I find enjoyable. First the stock market system, it adds a surprisingly fun twist to an otherwise straight forward system. It’s a good feeling knowing your stocks have paid off when you start getting huge cuts of each monetary transaction. Also being a huge fan of Super Mario, it’s nice to see my favorite characters along with hearing some nostalgic tunes from the series. Even though I can’t play as my favorite characters the game does throw me an olive branch by allowing me to buy items to customize my character. However there are some problems with Itadaki Street as well. Like Monopoly, although there are some strategies, most of the game is factored on lucky rolls. Players only roll one die and it’s not uncommon to have several turns without landing on a vacant property square which can be infuriating. Game times can take several hours forcing players to put in ample free time to complete one board. It’s also an extremely hard game; even the lower ranking opponents can be extremely ruthless.

Personally I like Itadaki Street but in the end it’s a very niche experience. This is game that is built for two types of enthusiast. In the one hand are the hard-core fans of either the Dragon Warrior or Super Mario series. In the other are the die-hard Monopoly fans who don’t mind the added complexity of a stock market and changing game boards. Anyone not in these two categories should steer clear of Itadaki Street DS because it’s not the game for you.

Front Cover

Front Cover

Back Cover

Back Cover

Our class paid a visit to Asakusa Temple during one of its many festivals. There were people everywhere for the celebration we could barely get into the main gate. Speaking of the main gate the lantern that hangs from it was folded up that day which Japanese locals informed us was a rare sight to see. Once inside there were shops everywhere that sold various assortments of food, weapons, toys and souvenirs. The shops were quite beautiful and I want to know where in America I can get a katana as cheap or as gorgeous as some of the swords at these stores. I really wanted to see the temple so I continued to battle my way through the crowds. While on my way I noticed loud chanting and cheering as a group of Shinto volunteers carried a relic throughout the temple grounds. Before entering the temple I stopped for a second to check my fortune. For 100 yen a person can shake a silver colored canister and remove a stick. Engraved on this stick is a number which tells you which drawer holds your fortune. The fortunes range from best, to great, regular, and even bad. Never fear if you get a bad fortune though there are spots all throughout the temple where you can tie-off and forget your bad fortune. The temple itself was amazing; it was dimly lit by candlelight and filled with statues and beautiful artwork that I can’t even begin to understand the meaning of. I think that’s why I enjoyed our temple visits the most, the mystery surrounding all the artifacts and relics inside their walls.

Relic

Relic

Daisho-in is a Buddhist temple on the foot of Mount Misan and was one of our cultural visits on our day in Miyajima. It was without a doubt one of the most breathtaking temples I’ve ever seen. At the temple’s base there was a stairway that had rotatable railings with important teachings engraved on them. At mid-climb was a donation box, the kicker was that there was also a bell, so anyone who donated money could proudly ring the bell to announce their presence. Before entering any shrine visitors were required to take their shoes off at the base of each staircase. At the top of most shrines was a pedestal where sweet smelling incense burned. Bringing the smoke towards your face and breathing it in is believed to be a cleansing and blessing of one’s body. One of the many shines we entered was a dark underground hallway which I believed was representing the darkness of life. However before you exit the shrine you’ll see lighted Buddha panels symbolizing the enlightenment of his teachings. The best part of all about Daisho-in Temple is the many miniature carved statues of Buddha. There is a giant path of these statues and most have been decorated with small donations of yen. Some are serious, some are cute, but all of them show devotion and loyalty to Buddha and his teachings.

Year of the Tiger

Year of the Tiger...My Year

One of the greatest places we’ve visited in our time in Japan would be Miyajima Island, it was truly and otherworldly experience. From the moment our group exited the dock we were observers to many new wonders. Our First sight was the deer of Miyajima; they were about as tall as a medium sized dog and smelled terrible. The interesting thing about these deer is that they had no fear of humans; they casually walk up to you and wait patiently for you to feed them. Okay, so it wasn’t always patient. Some will try to eat the map you may be carrying out of your hands or backpack; others will buck you if they feel you’re holding out on them. Second was the Itsukushima Shrine or the floating gate as some people call it. Let me tell you that pictures don’t do this site justice. Travelers are blessed with a beautifully open seaside view to snap photos for memories or just reflect on how awesome it is to get out and see the world. Even though the floating gate is somewhat of a tourist attraction observers can take notice that there are still individuals who view the gate as a sacred place. I could see pilgrims in row boats paddling their way through the gate to receive its blessing. The best thing about Miyajima is how ancient the villages look. It feels like a place untouched by time and there are buildings that I’d swear could be centuries old. All in all that’s the main reason I enjoyed Miyajima, there is a certain peace one obtains from the old-time simplicity.

Miyajima

Miyajima

Japan is one of the cleanest places that I’ve ever seen. In the three weeks I’ve been in this country I’ve only counted about eight pieces of trash on the street. It sounds a bit hard to believe but it’s one hundred percent true the streets here are just that clean. Now here’s an even bigger brain teaser, there are barely any garbage cans anywhere in Japan. Oh you may find one or two in the train station or near a vending machine, but don’t expect to find one on the streets, your chances are slim to nil. I personally like it though, the lack of garbage cans helps to keep me traveling light because I don’t know how long I’ll have to walk with an empty soda can in my hands or wrappers from whatever candy I’ve purchased. Also with how clean the streets are I can’t even find the urge within myself to litter, I just don’t want to ruin I good thing. Now if only we could figure out how to psychologically stop people from littering so America could have cleaner streets.

Streets High-up View

Streets High-up View

In Akihabara it is not uncommon to see Japanese women dressed as French maids handing out fliers on the streets. What are these fliers advertising you ask why a maid café of course; but what is a maid café? Our class traveled to Akihabara and successfully figured out the answer to this question. A maid café is a cosplay restaurant serviced completely by women dressed as French maids. Upon entering the maid café our ears were graced with the sound of happy euro-beat style electronic music with high pitched cheery singing in the background. The music was adorable and made it hard not to smile while we waited for what happened next. Waitresses brought us our menus and patiently waited while we attempted to translate it. The interesting thing about the maid café is how the food is served to you. Maids bring out the items one at a time and for each item you have to perform the maid café cheer. You do this by holding your hands in the shape of a heart and repeating after the waitress. It was very cute but a bit of a strange way for adults to act and probably the slowest way to serve a meal. One of our classmates ordered the special lovers spaghetti plate which interrupted the order of the café. Our class was called up to take a picture with the entire troop of maids. Overall it was a fun, if a bit awkward time.

Mural

Wasn't allowed to take pictures of the Maids

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a practice that dates back to the ninth century when tea was first brought to Japan. On our travels in Japan our class was able to take part in one of these Japanese traditions. We were brought to a room on the 65th floor of a very nice hotel in Tokyo, where the tea ceremony was to take place. The tea room was beautifully decorated in traditional Japanese fashion; large stones formed a path across a room filled with wet tiny white rocks. Removal of our shoes was a requirement before we could venture inside towards the straw floor where the ceremony was to take place. The straw floor was refreshingly cool a great contrast to the humid summer day happening outside. Before we began the hostess informed us that the straw mats were cool in the summer and warm in the winter that’s what made them the official floors of the ceremony, neat! The hostess then handed out sweets that were represented by shapes of the season and truthfully they were a bit too sweet for my tastes. We learned that the reason sweets are handed out in the tea ceremony is to combat the bitterness of the green tea. Every movement the hostess made in the preparation of our tea was carefully a recreation of her ancestors of old from pouring the water from the hot boiler to the way she stirred it with the straw brush. When the tea was presented to me I bowed as was told to show my appreciation. In my opinion the tea didn’t need any sweets to counteract it, the tea was probably some of the best I’ve drank in my life.

Pre-Tea Snacks

Pre-Tea Snacks

Kobe!

It was around 7:30 P.M. and a group of my classmates as well as myself were waiting patiently for our professor to meet us in the lobby of our Osaka hotel. We were about to make a 65-80 dollar investment on one of Japan’s most famous meals, Kobe Beef. Actually to call Kobe a meal is an insult; it was a delicacy of flavors that danced around enticing the pallet. Walking into the diner I didn’t think much of the place, it was small and shared resemblance to the greasy spoon diners back home. As we sat down at the bar like counter there were only two options placed in front of us, a small set for 6500 yen or a medium set for 8000 yen. Anybody who didn’t know what they were into would’ve left that diner faster than they entered. We finally finished ordering our sets and that’s when the fun began. The chefs at this place must have studied a long time because every action performed was synchronized. The steak was placed methodically on the skillet which was then garnished with onions and steak fries and the wine turned up the heat turning the dish into a pillar of flame. Skillets were removed from the heat source still aflame and put out with a few light flips from the chef. All of our steaks were placed in front of us still sizzling with an aroma indescribable by words. All you needed was a chopstick to cut the steak it was a tender juicy masterpiece. Kobe Beef is a must experience for anyone in Japan no excuses, if you come here you must get some.

Kobe!

Kobe!

When it comes to food service Japan is one of the best countries. Servers are always polite, clean, attentive and fast. The cherry on top for this countries’ food service industry is when it comes to the issue of tipping. It is considered rude to tip your waiter or waitress so therefore, you never have to leave a tip, prices on the menu are the prices you pay! There are even restaurants where the server is cut out entirely and replaced with a ticket selling vending machine. Patrons only need to deposit their money and choose from the nicely pictured menu. This system is great because it allows you to order at your own pace. If you’re in a hurry just pay and hit the takeout button, if you’re just on a casual stroll hit the dine-in button. The kitchen staff is incredibly fast at these vending diners, patrons usually receive their food within 3-5 minutes of their order. This may seem like magic but after my friend Pochin and I gave a closer listen we heard whatever we ordered announced over a loud speaker in the back. This is what prompted the chef to start cooking before we even sat down and handed him our tickets. Overall I feel the food service in Japan trumps that in America because the service is better and I don’t have to leave a tip to ensure it stays that way.

Good Food Great Service

Good Food Great Service