Anime Roundup 2015

Thursday, January 14 2016 at 21:02 (Uncategorized)

It’s the new year so it’s time again for some anime tier lists. You all like those right? Good.

First off, general overview of the year: overall not bad, as per usual. Lots of great shows ran over from 2014, and the winter and spring seasons had some excellent shows that I thoroughly enjoyed. Summer was not so lucky, with a lot of mediocre shows that I started but never finished – as before, if I didn’t finish it, it didn’t make the list. Autumn had a few shows that I liked but didn’t quite get around to, but somehow I managed to catch up on some titles from earlier in the year instead. Also some notes on format – since I watched a lot less crap this year, I’ve created an intermediary between God and Good tier, Great tier. Please look forward to it.

 

GOD TIER

These shows were my absolute favourites and are what I would hold up as the pinnacle of anime. It’s damn hard to achieve this tier.

Kuroko no Basuke 3
I know I’m shadow

 

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Picture borrowed from http://annciel7.tumblr.com

I couldn’t have known when I started watching this show at Mike’s urging what a stunning ride it would be. These final 25 episodes really kicked things up a notch in terms of basketball strategy, story, music and animation – oh man the animation was so damn good. Even the games that didn’t “matter” so much like the Kaijou vs Fukuda and Shuutoku vs Rakuzan games played out in a way such that the show never felt drawn out or boring, which seems surprisingly hard to do in sports anime. Then the knockout 1-2 punch of the Teiko arc then the Seirin vs Rakuzan game… and that one bit at the end! You know the bit I mean. The bit with the music. Aw yea.

Best guy: Aomine Daiki

 

Shirobako
Funny story, you should watch this show

shirobako

Unlike some people, I actually really enjoyed the weird hallucination sequences

“But didn’t you already write about Shirobako last year? Why again?” Because screw you Shirobako didn’t finish until 2015 and I just recently rewatched it and it’s still amazing. Watching the team come together to make the Daisan Hikou-Shoujotai series come to life was amazing, and the tension from production problems and the large cast of characters felt absolutely real. I don’t usually cry at anime; I didn’t cry at Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso or Death Parade, but I had teary eyes in the penultimate episode of Shirobako. It might be hyperbole to call it anime’s West Wing but I’m doing it anyway.
(Also did you know that all the main cast of girls (the anime club) were all pretty much unknown voice actors before this show? How cool is that? Such a classy show.)

Best guy: Nabe-P

 

GREAT TIER

Really, truly excellent shows that I didn’t mind going out of my way to watch. That said, there is room for improvement and that’s why they’re not God tier.

Death Parade
Play parlour games for your eternal soul

Flyers

Quality music

This was one of several excellent shows that Madhouse has been putting out lately; they’ve really been on a roll for a while now. This was a continuation of the Young Animator Training Project OVA entitled “Death Billiards” in which two people compete in games for either reincarnation or condemnation to the void, all of which, obviously, takes place in a chic bar and the games are all air hockey or bowling or some shit. The show retains and expands the ideas from the short, exploring ideas of death and humanity, with some pretty dark stuff thrown in; each episode plays out like something of a reverse mystery as the competitors recover their memories and realise that they’ve died and the circumstances therein. There’s also plenty of ongoing intrigue and curveballs to keep it interesting, as well as some worldbuilding that hints at a much larger operation than what we see. So good that we cosplayed it at MCM London.

Best guy: Ginti

 

Arslan Senki (Heroic Legend of Arslan)
Semi-historical fantasy with clashing armies and Arakawa pretty boys

sam

u wot m8

This is the anime adaptation of a manga which is an adaptation of a novel series. I don’t actually know who wrote the novel and the anime studio is pretty new to full production, but the manga is written and drawn by legendary mangaka Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist and Silver Spoon fame, which means that it should be automatically awesome. Fortunately it is.

We follow Arslan, a young prince of a powerful nation striving to take back the throne of his country from invaders. It’s just really fun to watch all the great characters with excellent designs fighting and making plans and executing plans and fighting off a thousand troops single handed (oh Daryun), and though the animation production noticeably dips for a few episodes around the midpoint and the CGI soldiers in battles aren’t terribly convincing, when it works it really works. All the characters are great, and you find yourself invested in almost all of them, good side or bad.

Best guy: Sām

 

(Diamond no Ace S2)
“Who is that first year southpaw pitcher with the weird form?”

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Dramatisation of real events

One of the only ongoing shows on this list, this was my workhorse show for a lot of the last part of the year. At over 100 episodes so far including the first season, this was a show to sit down with my housemate and watch a few episodes at the end of the day.

We follow the exploits of Sawamura Eijun, pitcher extraordinaire as he strives to become the ace ball-thrower of the once-great Seido baseball team. I’ll admit that the show started out slowly in the first season, but when it built up to speed it became something to really look forward to. The second season captured some of this slow start with 3(!) recap episodes at the beginning, but since then it’s been pretty solid with some great baseball. The cast of characters are also great, and have actually developed extremely well beyond the one-liners and two-dimensional personas they started with. Ace show.

Best guy: Chris-senpai

 

One Punch Man
Imagine Dragon Ball crossed with Kill la Kill crossed with Tiger & Bunny plus Mega Man. You’re halfway there

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Presumed OPM budget

This show seems to be pretty stunningly popular from what I’ve seen, and for good reason. The main guy is a “hero as a hobby” who is pretty much the most powerful being in the universe and can destroy anything with one punch, but is otherwise completely unremarkable – even his face and hero suit are remarkably bland. Most of the show’s humour comes from juxtaposing his unremarkableness with his amazing strength and everyone else taking everything so damn seriously, which it does with surprisingly great consistency. Many shows I feel would be tempted to try and get ‘clever’ having invented a gimmick such as this, doing things like making situations where one punch isn’t enough or other tricks like you get in your average bad shounen show. In fact OPM makes a special point of pointing out how dumb all that shit is by often ignoring or sidelining (or instantly killing) when anyone tries to announce themselves or do super special moves. And yet it’s still very much going by the tropes in its own way; there’s not the awkward pace-killing interruptions that stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy tried to do for comic effect, and it’s very much an homage to the ridiculous shounens of old as well as a parody.

Special mention also has to go to the animation, which is fantastic. It’s almost worth watching this just for the sheer spectacle, episode after episode without a single noticeable dip in quality and extremely heavy action sequences in every episode. And all this without a single frame of 3DCG in sight. Madhouse (man I love Madhouse) really outdid themselves here.

Best guy: Mumen Rider

 

Yowamushi Pedal: Grande Road
You want to finish this post? You better raise your cadence by another 30 RPM

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Those nicknames tho

This cycling show just edges out Great category. I actually watched the entirety of Yowamushi Pedal in 2015 rather than just this second season, and the ability to simply marathon the whole thing made it a pretty great show to watch, with plenty of tension and atmosphere. However, watching it week by week (as shows are supposed to be watched, fuck you Netflix you’re destroying television) I feel that the pacing would have been painfully slow. Still…

We follow Sakamichi Onoda (which as far as I can tell is a rough name equivalent of Climby McClimberson) who is a huge otaku and, unbeknownst to him, an amazing hill-climbing cyclist. The anime club at his school is shut down and so he ends up joining the cycling club so he can force his moe shit on them instead, and also some bike races blah blah. The visual of road racing is at its core not terribly exciting and there is a LOT of talking going on in this show as characters ride along in packs, but the characters themselves are so well-designed and interesting that it’s not really a problem. The “villain” in particular does a spectacular job of being a terrible person but an absolutely amazing character. Also some great music in this show.

Best guy: Yuusuke Makishima

 

 

 

GOOD TIER
Very solid shows, extremely watchable but not terribly outstanding. Good to pass the time.

Hibike! Euphonium
Cute girls play cute instruments ETERNAL MISERY FOREVER

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Genuine screenshot

Kyoto Animation, usually known for cutesy but watchable moeblob tripe, put out a surprisingly thoughtful show about a concert band being driven to play and practice seriously to get to the national competition by their new adviser/conductor. It’s surprisingly dark by KyoAni standards, nothing that dire but lots of ~drama~ and arguments and other things that happen when a lot of girls get together (jk not jk). Also gives some insight into playing the less ‘romantic’ band instruments and some ideas about music appreciation in general. This is no Shigatsu and the music is still relatively thin on the ground compared to character stuff and drama, but it’s a good show with good if archetypal characters.

Best guy: Takuya Gotou

 

Parasyte
Headless guy says what?

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Parasyte: The Summary

I initially skipped this show because I found it initially kind of gross and wasn’t terribly fond of the characters, but came back to it recently. In the near future tiny parasitical worms fall to earth and invade people’s bodies, turning them into man-eating monsters – the twist here being that the “parasites” as they’re called can blend into human society if they try, are unable to reproduce and so limited in number and are also highly intelligent, though without any empathy. Our hero is an average glasses-wearing school guy who ends up with one of these morphing creatures attached to his arm and thus eventually gains fighting prowess, a sweet haircut and all the bitches anyone could ask for. His arm creature is also voiced by Aya Hirano (voice of Haruhi Suzumiya) for reasons. You’ll probably see the big plot points coming and the music is occasionally laughably over the top (dubsteb for walking round a corner, really?) but there’s some ideas about the role and fate of humanity and some pretty cool animation. Just another choo choo on the Madhouse gravy train.

Best guy: Mamoru Uda

 

(GATE: Jieitai Kano Chi nite, Kaku Tatakaeri)
The Japanese army invades a parallel universe and find an otaku’s dream land

gate-jietai

Disco jeep

This probably gets the award for “watchable anime of the year” given that all it really has going for it other than that it was the only thing that kept my interest through the summer drought and was consistently fun. The show is basically just a jumble of otaku stuff, including cat girls, goth-loli girls, elves, military hardware: you want it, this show probably has it. It has that peculiar quality that KyoAni series often have where I enjoy watching it and look forward to the next episode, but in the intervening time cannot remember a single thing that happened. I would say that it’s a good, inoffensive show but some scenes in the first episode of the second season show some uh… questionable stuff. We’ll see.

Best guy girl: Piña Co Lada (all the guys suck)

 

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
SHIROUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU KUUUUUUUUUUUUN

I’ve read the whole visual novel and seen the movie and watched the series of this, but I still can’t remember what happened at the end or if this show was even any good. …fuck it.

 

BAD TIER
Flawed to the point where I really don’t know why I bothered.

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
SEEEEIIIIIIIIIIBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

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Omg I met Rie fu it was so cool

This goes here now. It was dumb and I just watched it because my housemate liked it.

Best guy: Lancer

 

Kantai Collection
Why ruin all these cute battleships with gross girl parts?

I watched this show because it’s hot internet property basically. Nearly all of the artists I follow were drawing KanColle fanart for months leading up to this (not that kind of fanart) (okay sometimes that kind of fanart) and I admit I bought into the hype a little bit. I even played the game, despite not really understanding what the hell was going on most of the time. Basically the game is about anthropomorphic girl versions of battleships fighting an evil force. You’d think that the show might expand beyond that as a storyline, but no… not really. It’s just Your Favourite Ship Girl Does Cute Things all day. Even the battle scenes were rather lacking in terms of big guns going “BA-DUNG” and doing that cool recoil thing. It was just sort of flat and uninteresting, really.

Best ship girl: Kagerou-class Shiranui (not even in the show)

 

SAO TIER
These are shows that I inexplicably watched to the end despite them being stunningly bad.

Owari no Seraph (Seraph of the End)
Everyone is a vampire except some people who aren’t vampires

seraph

~quality show~

Man, this show. Studio WIT, known for the distinctly overrated Shingeki no Kyojin, prove here beyond a doubt that no, they really can’t do anything beyond pretty animation. (Seriously though, that one bit in the opening where the MC is pulling out his sword is just fabulously done.) All the characters are awful shounen archetypes and do awful shounen things, the character designs are rubbish and the MC is a prick but he’s so ~tortured~ so it’s somehow okay. Even the animation quality drops off quite quickly. Above all, it’s just so boring. I’m never invested in anything except for everyone on screen to get murdered as soon as possible, and even when that actually happens it’s not much respite. If you’re either 14 years old or 25 and still acting like a 14-year-old then I’m sure that you’ll think that this is the coolest, deepest show ever. As it is, it’s a boatload of piss.

Disclaimer: I only watched the first season of this. I didn’t have any friends to watch the second season with, and it’s just sad to watch bad anime alone.

Worst guy: MC

 

OP of the year
Taking into account the whole opening sequence rather than just the song used.

“Flyers” – Bradio (Death Parade)

Runners up:

“Punky Funky Love” – Granrodeo (Kuroko no Basuke 3 OP1)

“Ai no Scenario” – CHiCO with HoneyWorks (Magic Kaito 1412 OP2)

 

ED of the year
Ditto to above, though less so since ED sequences are usually more static.

“Hello Shooting Star” – moumoon (Ansatsu Kyoushitsu ED1)

Runners up:

“Lapis Lazuli” – Aoi Eir (Arslan Senki ED1)

“Fubuki” – Shiena Nishizawa (Kantai Collection)

 

So what does the future hold? Of the winter season I’m currently inexplicably enjoying Prince of Stride, a show about pretty boys running around, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (super hipster anime about Rakugo theatre) and Bubuki Buranki, a show about weird robots and regimes and… stuff? Who the hell knows. Should be fun regardless, and hopefully I actually finish more shows by this time next year so I can write all about them and not have to pad it all excessively with listing all the other best stuff. Wait hang on

BEST VIDEOGAME OF THE YEAR

Splatoon

Runner up: New Style Boutique 2: Fashion Forward

I didn’t actually play any other games that came out this year. But when you have those two who really needs more?

Until next time! ❤

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Tonkotsu Ramen Adventures

Wednesday, November 4 2015 at 04:03 (cooking) (, , , )

I first tried tonkotsu ramen in the summer of 2012 when I went to visit Fukuoka on my journey around Japan. Fukuoka itself wasn’t that interesting for a tourist and was mostly drizzly and grey, but one thing that my guide book mentioned specifically was tonkotsu ramen, which was invented in Fukuoka and is still served by street vendors along a particular street there. This particular street, however, happened to be about two miles’ walk away from the nearest metro station and my very lazy self nearly gave up on the idea. However, I’d come all the way to the south of Japan and I’d be damned if something good didn’t come of it all.

Thus, I made the trip and found the selection of slightly ragged looking street stalls, and was eventually enticed by a particular stall that was excited that I was a foreigner. I sat down and drank some slightly underage beer and chatted with a few of the locals in limited English whilst I waited for my ramen. When it eventually came… holy fuck. Instant noodles are dead. Nothing in a packet could ever satisfy me anymore. I can’t really offer a detailed description other than that it was deliciously meaty, damn, DAMN tasty and that the whole journey to Fukuoka was made more than worthwhile because of it.

Anyway, fast forward to the present. I’ve since been to Shoryu in Soho several times when I’ve been in London and enjoyed their ramen for sure, though the way they shout at you in faux Japanese when you enter and leave is more than grating enough to put me off going. But whilst their ramen is good, it’s a bit busy in terms of toppings and flavours and can’t quite touch that euphoric memory from Fukuoka.

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Tucking into some Shoryu ramen. Last time we went the service was pretty bad, they misinformed us about their menu, failed to properly imbue a pork bun with spookiness and didn’t cook our noodles to the correct hardness. Otherwise great.

I’ve also tried making my own ramen broth. For the uninitiated, tonkotsu (literally “pork bone”) broth is made by boiling pig bones for a very long time (8-12 hours at least) at a rolling boil until all the collagen breaks down and emulsifies into a delicious, creamy opaque broth – unlike western stocks, it’s quite heavy by itself and extremely rich. There are several recipes out there (though the traditional ones are usually closely guarded family secrets) but I settled on using this recipe from Serious Eats, which overall is a great site for interesting recipes and tips. My first results eight months or so ago were… eh, mediocre. This isn’t unexpected for the first time trying to make a dish, but given the effort involved of literally a whole day of cooking it was a bit depressing to have it come out as a sub-par product. Fortunately the slow-cooked chashu pork belly I cooked as a ramen topping came out perfectly, though I did cook it for several hours longer than the recipe stated.

I’ll summarise the broth recipe here for clarity:

  1. Blanch and then clean all your bones (pig trotters and chicken carcass)
  2. Put all your shit in a big-ass pot
  3. Boil it for 8-12 hours, stirring regularly
  4. Sieve and store or use

Simple, right? So what went wrong? Well, a number of things. The taste wasn’t right for me. The broth was creamy and lip-smackingly fatty but there was an acrid undertaste that I put down to the broth catching on the bottom of the pan near the end of cooking and burning (I nearly broke down when that happened). On top of the acrid taste, there was overall a bit too much vegetable and not enough pork for my liking. Also, and perhaps worst of all, the broth came out brown and not creamy white like I was promised.

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The original, distinctly brown broth.

I’ve had a lot of time to think since then, and I recently decided that the time was ripe for another, upgraded attempt. On my first attempt I followed the recipe verbatim, which includes 1 large onion, 2 leeks, 24 spring onions, 12 cloves of garlic, masses of mushrooms and loads of ginger. My stockpot is not un-large, but this ingredient list paired with the 3 pounds of sliced pig’s trotters and a dismantled chicken left me very little manoeuvring room and meant that the pot was nigh unstirrable for quite a while. Even when the vegetables cooked down a bit they basically turned into a stringy green goop that I’m pretty sure is what caused the burn on the first batch. The vegetables were also, obviously, adding to that vegetably flavour. First order of business: fuck all those vegetables.

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The raw stock ingredients, minus garlic.

The leeks were pretty obvious choices to go, since they took up lots of space and really added nothing good for me. The ginger also went because honestly fuck ginger most of all. It’s good in a few select things but I swear most of the time it just makes things bitter and nasty tasting. Garlic, on the other hand, is delicious and makes everything better. Everything else got downgraded in quantities to my favourite measure, “some”. I put in some garlic, some spring onions, some mushrooms and I think 2 medium onions. This led to a broth that was far easier to stir, easier to skim scum off the top of, far less full of goop and much more porky, whilst still having some flavour.

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Everything in a giant Polish enameled stock pot my mother gave me. Thanks mum!

Another slightly odd step in the recipe was to pretty much char the onions, garlic and ginger in a frying pan before adding them to the broth. Literally fry them till blackened. It’s worth noting that a key step in getting a nice white broth is to blanch your bones and then sit there scrubbing them for twenty minutes, picking out all the blood and marrow and such. It’s labour intensive and not really necessary for flavour reasons but it makes the broth look a lot nicer. Supposedly charring the vegetables is supposed to bring out the umami, but honestly I have a strong impression that this step contributed more to my brown, acrid tasting stock than the burnt bottom every did. Needless to say, I skipped it.

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The pot was like this for most of the day. In the absence of a heavy lid I used bags of Sainsbury’s Basics rice cushioned with a tea towel to keep it down. The rice works terribly as rice, but not bad as sandbags.

The actual cooking process was pretty simple, since most of it is just about waiting for 10 hours and stirring occasionally. The very worst thing about this process is the hours involved: I aimed to be up at 9am (actually more like 10:15) and still didn’t end up with a bowl of ramen in my hands until past midnight. Getting up early always makes me cranky so I kind of ended up punching my pork belly a lot whilst unsuccessfully trying to tie it into a round – I would suggest that this helped tenderise it but honestly if you’re cooking something for 6 hours it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. I’d also recommend that if you’re dismantling a chicken to use for bones that you do that the night before since it’s messy and also kind of intensive. On the upside, the removed meat made for a delicious chicken salad at lunch, though I do find it odd that the meat is basically an unwanted by-product in this case.

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Blindingly white. Creamy as anything. Smells like boiled pig feet.

A couple of stray observations: ladling the finished stock in to a sieve in smaller quantities rather than attempting to pour it all through like I did the first time meant that it was much easier to control and much less of the delicious juices were lost, as the meat pulp could be pressed against the sieve with a spoon. During cooking, meat was pulverised, collagen melted and the onions and garlic were reduced to nothingness; the mushrooms, on the other hand, somehow stayed intact throughout the whole process. I just found that amusing. Having a helper or at least sympathetic company on hand made a big difference to my mental wellbeing throughout the cooking process, which can be rather spiritually exhausting.

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Strained and skimmed stock. It’s all pale and creamy and stuff. I’m still surprised when what the recipe says will happen actually happens – it always feels like I must have missed the part with the cooking magic.

The chashu pork belly is not, as Shoryu puts it, “BBQ pork”. For one thing, its cooking involves nothing close to barbecue sauce. It is also not barbecued, nor should be. It is, at the very least, pork. Basically the idea here is to cook a piece of pork belly very slowly in a mixture of sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar until it is super tender (even the skin) and mega delicious (and also like 70% fat). Then you slice it up and put it on your ramen. But wait! Mirin? Sake? Where do I get those? Well… I just cheat and use a mixture of vodka, water and sugar for both. Soy sauce should be easily available, and if you use it regularly it’s much cheaper to buy a 1L bottle of Kikkoman off Amazon or from an Asian supermarket than it is to keep shelling out for the paltry 150ml bottles. Sake and mirin are expensive though, so vodka it is. I also kind of default to the “some” measurement here and just throw in amounts of each until it looks right rather than specific quantities – it always seems to come out nicely, regardless.

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The rolled pork belly immersed in its sultry liquid mix, ready to be ovened. Man I wish the skin wasn’t scored.

Once you’ve made your juice then you put some vegetables in it (I even put ginger in this one), add your pork and then cook at a low heat for 3-6 hours, turning regularly. It’s neat to see the slow transformation from okay looking pork to “oh man that looks well tasty”. I will say that I wish I could have got hold of pork belly with a non-scored skin as it makes carving it a nightmare when the skin constantly falls to pieces.

So then all that’s left is assembling the actual ramen. It was surprisingly hard to find plain straight ramen noodles in the Asian supermarket, and the ones I ended up with were slightly overly thick Australian-made noodles that don’t seem very good at all. I mean they’re okay but this is some serious shit here and I want good noodles for my ramen investment. Other toppings than chashu can include soft-boiled egg and enoki mushrooms, though lately I’ve moved away from the egg for somehow making things too rich. In a bowl of basically pork fat with sliced pork fat on top, that’s saying something. Sliced spring onion greens obviously go without saying – even the cheapest noodles include little green bits in their sachets as an homage.

Distinctly brown original attempt broth.

This is close to the minimum amount of spring onion needed. Preferably more.

So basically you need to boil your noodles whilst simultaneously heating up and flavouring your stock – whilst the stock is quite flavourful it’s still a flavour base and not a flavour. Good options include a wack-ton of salt, soy sauce, miso paste or chilli oil/flakes. Much as I love soy sauce it does make the broth more brown, which makes me cry internally for broth’s lost virgin paleness. So then you drain the ramen and put it in a bowl, add the broth and the toppings. Then you eat.

So after all that effort, how is it? Well suffice it to say that I’m vastly more pleased with my broth this time around. It came out creamy pale with no acrid notes and a load of tasty porkiness with just hints of garlic and other alliums. It goes deliciously with the chashu and leaves me feeling warm and contented after the fact. Does it reach the heady heights of that evening in Fukuoka? Of course not, but then what will? Memories are stupid like that. I also feel that there’s some flavour missing somewhere, though I really can’t say where. Is it worth it? Well, as a pretty average joe cook I’d say it’s certainly feasible for most people as long as you have a big-ass stock pot, but it’s really only going to be fun or interesting if you really, REALLY like ramen. In terms of cost investment it’s not terrible as all the main ingredients can be had for around £15 which makes 8-ish bowls of ramen, but if you don’t have the convenient access to pig trotters and the like it can consume a lot of time just to get ingredients together.

After you’re done, the freezer is your friend. The broth and the chashu can be frozen for up to 3 months and simply defrosted any time you fancy a nice bowl of tasty tasty noodles.

brb gonna go make some ramen

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Anime 2014 round-up

Friday, January 9 2015 at 02:50 (Anime, Reviews)

2014 was overall a pretty decent year for anime. The Winter season was weak and just had carry overs from 2013 Autumn, but later seasons did pretty well and the 2014 Autumn season in particular had a lot of shows to like. But whilst there were lots of good shows, the year in general lacked many standouts, truly brilliant shows that I’ll remember for years to come. Honestly I’d prefer a few really amazing shows over lots of pretty good ones, but that’s how life is. So without further ado, my thoughts on all the shows I watched through to the end this year in no particular order within each category.

Shows that have a cour running into 2015 in brackets.

Oh, and SPOILERS for some shows.

God Tier

These are the shows I looked forward to avidly each week.

Nagi no Asukara
Romance with people who live under the sea

I really don’t remember what happened in this show because I was extremely drunk for a lot of it, but somewhere along the line it went from being a stupid romantic drama to a really really good romantic drama. The second half in particular is great because Miuna. It’s completely beautiful and has a great soundtrack and characters.

Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei
A guy who is supposedly bad at magic goes to a futuristic magic high school

Transcending the ‘so bad it’s good’ archetype, this show was so entertainingly awful that it was one of my favourite animes of the year. The main character was so ridiculously powerful, the worldbuilding so vague and the plot so outlandishly retarded that I couldn’t help but love it. Every week brought a new burst of Engrish or some inexplicable feat or stupid magic quirk. People say you should read the LNs to fully understand this show but I don’t know why anyone would want to ruin something so perfectly bad.

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
High school comedy romance about a girl with a crush on her manga-drawing senpai

Basically very sweet, very funny, very well animated, good music, great characters, bish bash bosh. There’s just not a lot else to say.

(Shirobako)
An anime about an anime studio making anime

At first I had no idea what was going on in this show, but then you realise that’s sort of the point. Shirobako isn’t asking you to remember every one of the vast menagerie of character names, it’s just about getting lost in the intricacies of anime production. The plot beats might be very by-the-book but the content, characters, animation and style have been excellent so far.

Good Tier

I liked these shows but they have flaws such that they can’t ascend to God Tier

Captain Earth
When I opened the door called truth, my childhood ended. It was a summer I could never forget.

I had high hopes for the creators of my favourite anime of all time (Star Driver) but ultimately this show fell short of that. The characters, animation, art and particularly direction were fabulous but the mecha action was fairly minimal and the plot and pacing were all over the place. This could easily have been the best anime of the year with a little more care.

Haikyuu!!
Sports anime about volleyball

Suffered from poor subtitles courtesy of Crunchyroll and suffered further from the usual deliriously slow shounen sports episode pacing, but overall an enjoyable watch every week. Nice character designs but nothing groundbreaking.

Fate/stay night Unlimited Blade Works
Mages and magical servants summoned from history wage war in a town in Japan

I started watching this half as a joke to see what it was like, and well… it’s F/sn UBW alright. Having read the VN (for some reason) I know exactly what’s up and this show appears to be going for a near 1:1 adaption, for better or for worse. Face animations were a bit off and I lament the lack of music from the VN (apart from LiSA slaughtering This Illusion) but overall if you can get through the hours of exposition and talking then it’s got great action and it’s a fun watch. Looking forward to the second season in April.

Ao Haru Ride
Girl meets boy, boy goes away, boy comes back

Very straightforward shoujo romance, done very well but ultimately not doing very much interesting either. There’s some love triangle stuff but ultimately it’s just waiting for the two main characters to get over themselves and hook up. I hope it gets a second season because I enjoyed the characters.

Argevollen
In a war between two morally ambiguous countries, the tide is turned by who has the best mechs

The other mecha from creators of a show I like: this time Rinne no Lagrange. This is nowhere near as clean and dynamic as that show, but instead it’s a dirty, low-budget military mecha. If you can get past the cheap look and the shaky first few episodes it has a fairly interesting plot, great mecha designs, corporate warmongering and some of the best mecha fights of the year. It got very good in the middle but the ending was quite disappointing.

Amagi Brilliant Park
Light novel protagonist-kun (god on earth) teaches magical people how to run a theme park

I feel bad for liking this because it’s KyoAni, but at the same time I shouldn’t feel bad, because it’s KyoAni. They excel at making good shows that are ultimately forgettable. This is ultimately what that is; a solid comedy that I won’t remember existed in a few months’ time.

Shingeki no Bahamut
Fantasy adventure that is basically the same plot as FFXIV for some reason
Literally the opening to the first episode and the End of An Era trailer are the same

The true dark horse of the autumn season (though I had faith from the beginning so ha) this card-game based adventure romp started out exceptionally strong, faltered in the middle and then brought it back somewhat for a lukewarm ending. I feel that more could have been done in this universe, so I look forward to seeing if we get more from this series in the future. Solid style and animation throughout.

Sidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia)
People living on a giant spaceship have to be defended from creepy alien things by mechs

I put off watching this show because of the awful use of 3DCG to model the characters. I dislike the use of 3DCG in anime as a general rule because I think it looks out of place and ruins immersion. On mechanical objects and mechanisms it’s kind of acceptable, on mechas it’s sort of allowable if done well though hand-drawn mecha action will always be more visceral and natural. On human characters it’s just unnatural. It’s not RWBY awfulness level but there’s a certain unnaturalness to movements and faces, even by anime standards. One character wears a mask for much of the time, only to take it off and reveal a face that looks far more artificial. It got less noticeable as the series went on, but the first episode in particular is very grating. The story was exceptionally predictable with every character waving enormous death flags before they were inevitably offed, but the universe was interesting enough to keep me interested. The mecha action was… okay. Nothing exceptional but interesting designs, pity they was no variation from the one default style.

(Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso)
Girl has to teach a former piano virtuoso how to piano again

This started out as one of my favourite shows of the autumn season but despite being very pretty and having great music kind of steadily deteriorated and got slower and slower. I expected something a bit tighter out of a noitaminA project, but maybe the second half will bring it all back.

(Magic Kaito 1412)
A phantom thief performs elaborate robberies and antics in the Detective Conan universe

I very nearly bumped this one up to god tier because it’s just so goddamn hilarious, but I think I have to wait for it to finish to judge properly. Good in the same way Mahouka was but a bit more self-aware, the sheer ridiculousness of the plot and action knows no bounds. The casual reveal that real magic exists and that a side character is a sorcerer is basically never brought up again despite being pretty much universe-flipping information. The shit that happens in this show is truly off the hook ad yet it’s just so lovable. It’s a show from a forgotten time where silly single-episode arcs are okay.

(Garo: The Animation)
An adaptation of a tokusatsu show in which knights fight demons

I’m still not actually certain if I like this show. It’s kind of average in every way, and kind of unremarkable. Not predictable but I’m also not that excited to see where it’s going. I just don’t know, man.

(Log Horizon 2)
Players of an MMO find themselves trapped in the game world

Database 2.0 is generally weaker than the first season, wasting a number of episodes on fluff and boring arcs instead of a truly sweet raid sequence and showing what happened to Crusty. Also DEEN animation is quite inferior to the previous season’s Satelight with a lot of characters having visibly messy designs compared to before. Still fun and still a lot better than SAO.

Bad Tier

I tried to like these shows but they just didn’t like me.

Isshuukan Friends
Boy gets crush on girl who loses her memories of her friends every week

A lovely, gorgeous looking romance by Brain’s Base that ultimately went nowhere, did nothing and ended suddenly with nothing resolved at all. Yes it was pretty but the central gimmick wore thin very quickly and the protagonist was just pathetic and deeply annoying. Good side characters.

No Game No Life
A brother and sister who are the best at games get put in a world that runs on games

Supposedly a ‘breakout hit,’ this boring slog through what appears to be the first arc of what looks like an overly long plot finds two ‘genius’ main characters lording their brilliance over everyone else for twelve episodes in completely nonsensical ways when they aren’t engaging in near-constant fanservice and nudity. It was predictable and not particularly funny.

Glasslip
Romantic drama thing with glassblowing and occasional hallucinations

Following on from the success of Nagi no Asukara, this show… was pretty bad overall. The art and animation was classic PA Works but the use of still frames at random intervals speak a lot about the budget this show had. It’s nice to see original shows rather than adaptations in the romance genre, but even despite that this show still went nowhere and did nothing. I’m not actually certain there was a plot and random things kept getting added in, like the male protagonist suddenly talking to imaginary clones of himself. Wut?

SAO Tier

The true baddies, inexcusably poor.

Sword Art Online II
Kirito is the best at everything ever and he plays games on the internet

Holy shit this show was bad. After complaining about how the entire GGO arc could have been about half the length without the needless padding, the second half enters into ‘random adventures in fairy land’ including retrieving a sword that is never mentioned or used again after a ‘raid boss’ (Log Horizon promptly put this to shame) and a stupidly drawn out arc about a girl with no personality or interesting traits who we’re supposed to care about because she has AIDS and is going to die. When the stakes are dropped from ‘We have to save these 10,000 players from a vicious world of death and danger’ to ‘We have to save mai waifu from being raped by some evil geezer’ to ‘We have to stop this murderer on the loose in this game’ to ‘Oh no we have to save these fluffy NPC creatures’ to ‘We need to get realm first on this raid u guize’ you can’t help but feel that the writer for this series has no real sense of large-scale plot pacing.
In the end this show found a use in making Log Horizon look good, even when it wasn’t.

Aldnoah/Zero
The human race is split between those on the earth and those who live on Mars and they don’t get along very well

This show overall had lots of potentially good stuff that ultimately came to nothing:
The animation was great – but the direction and fights were bad.
The CGI was decent – but the mecha designs were totally awful and the transformations were laughable.
The music was overall pretty good – but they threw it in at random times and often the tone didn’t really fit. Also the same soundtrack Sawano’s done six times already.
The character designs were good and some of them were interesting but we got to focus on the dull main characters constantly instead of Cruhteo sassing around.
The setup and universe building was decent, though it’s nothing most mecha viewers haven’t seen before, and ultimately it was wasted on long boring situations.
Inexcusable things include Cruhteo getting offed and the colossally awful ending in which everyone of note gets shot.
Basically the show might be fun if you don’t watch any mecha, but if you’ve seen any before it’s a paint-by-numbers script without any soul behind it, with the only real twist being the stupid ending. Overall A-1 trying to be Sunrise and throwing money at a project they don’t understand. Second season will be interesting.

(Cross Ange)
Half-naked lesbians fight dragons in mechas

By contrast from Aldnoah, this is Sunrise being Sunrise down to a tee. However, unlike Aldnoah the badness here is actually quite fun; Sunrise are the kings of the spectacular trainwreck, and trainwreck this is. It could almost be bumped up to ‘Good’ status on sheer entertainment value alone but it’s just not quite there. This is a big-budget thing and thus looks very nice, but it’s just so dumb and so gratuitous that I really don’t know what to think. I wish it had more actual mecha action and less of the whole cast getting naked every six seconds.

So that’s it for 2014 (apart from the carry overs, obviously). Up for trial for next season are:

Kantai Collection because I’m a goddamn sucker for cute girls and mechanical bits and big guns that go ‘BA-DUM’ and have recoiling barrel things.
The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls because goddamit I watched all of the first anime and when I was in Akihabara it was smothered with posters for Cinderella Girls.
Death Parade is the full series follow up to the Madhouse-produced short Death Billiards. DEATH BILLIARDS.
Aldnoah/Zero 2 because I hate myself and there might be more good insert songs.
Rolling*Girls is an original project by Wit Studio. I have no idea what it’s about but I’ll roll with it (laughs).
Kuroko no Basuke 3 is the third season of Kuroko no Basuke. I have to watch it so I can still be friends with Mike.
Yoru no Yatterman is a new Yatterman anime(!) by Tatsunoko. The last time they revived one of their older franchises in a new way we got the excellent Gatchaman Crowds, so I’m psyched.

Also Anne is like soooo cute omg lol (⁎⁍̴̛͂▿⁍̴̛͂⁎)*✲゚*。⋆♡

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I got tweeted

Tuesday, February 12 2013 at 19:21 (Daily Life, Pictures) (, )

Every so often this happens:

y u no blog

And I go “Hmm, why don’t I blog any more?” Then I remember that my life isn’t especially interesting or noteworthy, nothing going on in my life right now is terribly sensational and even if it was, this blog has a nasty habit of being read by my mother and various family members, meaning that I end up being somewhat reserved in my disclosure and use of profanities. Regardless, it has been a while and I feel that I should put something here, even if it’s only entirely mundane.

As you might recall from the last entry I am currently doing Civil Engineering at Nottingham University, which is pretty alright I suppose. The quality of lecturers varies pretty wildly and I do tend to find that my enjoyment and subsequent grade in a subject seems to revolve a lot around the lecturer. This term I intend to make an effort to read a textbook for the subjects with an inferior lecturer rather than just giving up on that subject because I feel like I can’t learn anything.
I did recently get back my marks from my first term modules, which were generally good. Three modules spread over the 60s, one 59 [and also a 30 (and a 10)]. This means only one retake! Hooray! And I nearly got a first in Japanese! Pity I’m on a CivEng course. As for the retake, that particular exam was super-awful and both of my future housemates also need to retake it.
Which brings me to another thing: I have somewhere to live next year. It’s an actually rather nice house in Lenton where I will be living with Luke and Tim, both of whom are massive nerds. Tim actually owns the house because he’s from Surrey and that’s just what people from Surrey do when they go to common places like Nottingham. This means that he’s both my housemate and my landlord, so it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.

In terms of life, I’ve been shockingly active over the last week or so. Rather than spending the evenings bored in my room I’ve actually been going out and doing some things, including ‘clubbing’. ‘Clubbing’ involves dressing inappropriately for the outside temperature resulting in possible hypothermia before ingesting large amounts of dilute ethanol and travelling at great expense to a room where one is essentially mentally beaten with clubs until near death (hence the name). Some of my contemporaries find this to be incredibly exciting and interesting, but frankly I was just very bored for most of it. There’s only so many times you want to get your head caved in by bass before you just want to sit down with a cup of tea and a book for the rest of your life.

Much more my scene was the LAN party I went to the following night last weekend. A LAN party involves a collection of nerds putting their computers all together in a room and playing exciting games. Since all the computers are connected over the Local Area Network and not over the internet it is known as a LAN party (even though many newer games don’t support LAN play). It was pretty fun to meet some people I’ve only ever talked to on voice chat and the like and say ‘Hi, I’m Ben from the internet.’ We played League and I played support and it was good. And when someone does something stupid you can actually beat them around the head.

I also bought some things recently. I finally decided to give in to my inherent otaku-ness and decorate my wall with cool things. This is where we’re at currently:

wall

oh god what did WordPress do to their image insertion tool

It’s pretty good and I especially like the Nichijou poster on the right. I wish I had a better way to display some of my cooler Comiket loot but most of it isn’t really wall-hangable. The wall scrolls I’m not so sure about. I like the CCS Sakura but the Tsubasa Chronicle Sakura is pretty pixellated when you go up close to it. I think that overall posters are going to give me much better quality. Talking of which, in the next few days this should be arriving:

poster

seriously there’s no way to easily change the actual image size any more

Which is pretty awesome, I think anyway. I’ve been looking for a good Star Driver poster for a while and this one is pretty much perfect.
In other nerdy pursuits, I went into town last week saying that I didn’t really need to buy much and somehow ended up with this:

mangos

I have to repeatedly open the image menu and reduce size by 40%

The Hyrule Historia in particular is really nice, and though I haven’t read much of it yet, one can never have enough CLAMP.

Finally there’s audio things, in which I finally decided to go ahead and get a Fostex HP-A3 which was really cheap and not at all expensive. It just arrived today but it sounds really nice, is solid as a rock, looks mega-pretty (at least to my engineer eyes) and also runs entirely off USB power. I’ve only used the internal amp so far but I expect to be using it DAC-only for the most part. I’ll also probably use it as a transportable rig with my laptop.

hp-a3

I get that they want to simplify it but taking away key functionality is just dumb

So there you go, a brief summary of things happening to me right now. Until someone else tweets at me to blog more…

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University Power

Monday, October 8 2012 at 00:00 (Daily Life, Games, Trips)

Not sure why ‘power’. But I figured that just ‘University’ would be a boring title.

To start off with, unfinished business. obviously I never cleared up how things ended up in Japan, mostly because I was busy in Tokyo and then as soon as I got home a lot of things happened, then I had a lot of free time but was feeling lazy. Sendai was wonderful and extremely nice and one of my favourite places I visited in Japan. Tokyo was very nice as well, but somewhat bigger and scarier than Sendai (though no Japanese cities ever really feel scary because it’s such a safe country). I met up with Marie and Daniel and we did exciting things and I went to Comiket and it was awesome and I went up Tokyo Tower (though not Tokyo Skytree) and did some other things that slip my mind right now.

Basically the whole trip was a stunningly fantastic experience. I met fantastic people that I hope I’ll be able to keep in contact with for years to come and did amazing things that I won’t ever forget. I can’t wait until I get the chance to go back.
So when I got home I found out that I’d got into Nottingham university, which was surprising but rather nice overall. After that I spent around a month and a half gradually accruing university things and failing to do much in the way of packing. I did some more work on the Mid Suffolk Light Railway but overall I was rather unfocused and not exactly working on anything. There was one Head-Fi meet on the 15th of September which was pretty awesome apart from the fact that I got rather lost in Cambridge on the way back after kindly dropping someone off at the train station. I heard an SR-009 and Blue Hawaii SE combo and it was pretty good, but still not leaps and bounds ahead of my rig.

On the 22nd of September I made the journey up to Nottingham with two rather full rucksacks on a pathetically short two-hour train journey (it would probably have been about half an hour by Shinkansen) and spent a night on the floor of a friend who’s at Nottingham Trent. His parents, one of whom is my godmother, had kindly brought up the majority of their stuff in their car.
The actual excitement started on the 23rd, when roads were locked with traffic and confused students had seemingly taken over the universe – I was obviously not one of them, moving around confidently and only feigning confusion. After arriving relatively painlessly, getting my keys and moving in all my stuff we discovered that my hall wasn’t providing pillows and duvets – the hall information had very specifically said ‘bring bed linen (pillow and duvet covers and sheets)’ but didn’t mention the actual bedding itself. We went off to the nearby gigantic Tesco but the aforementioned students had raided the bedding hard and all that remained was king size duvets and a few other scraps. I managed to get an extremely cheap ‘extra-thin keep-you-cool’ duvet and a Tesco Value pillow. Both were pretty shit, but I figured that they’d work temporarily and I could replace them later on.
On the way back from Tesco the traffic was so bad that I ended up jumping/getting pushed out of the car, abandoned in Nottingham to fend for myself. I made my way back to the campus and my hall and then got to work assembling my bedside table using my exciting new tools (hammer, both types of screwdriver, needle-nose pliers, tape measure – everything necessary for 94% of problems) and then there were some speechy introduction things and some more things and food. I ended up talking with a group of three girls on the way to the big speech thing and then later I somehow ended up in one of their rooms…
Watching Doctor Who. Aw yeah. This is exactly what I hoped for in university.

The first week was pretty uneventful for me – I managed to go to an excessive number of pub quizzes but got struck with Fresher’s Flu very early on because of excessive rain and lack of an umbrella and so spent much of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday curled up after dosing up on ibuprofen rather than going out and having fun. I had a variety of struggles with the university network, which requires one to have Windows 7 SP1 installed to connect, something that I have had problems with in the past. I tried a lot of things and talked to an exceptionally unhelpful IT guy and his crony, who suggested that I might try looking online for the solution to my problem. Obviously. I would never have thought of that one. I later found out that most of the reason that I wanted to get off the guest internet and use the main network was moot because I wanted to be able to use Steam and play League of Legends and use IRC… all of which are blocked by the firewall anyway. Oh well, there are workarounds.

Lectures have been fairly interesting so far, involving quite a bit of maths but with a few modules having more of a focus on structure. I think the trickiest module will be engineering maths, which is essentially just a pure maths module with no application to real problems and covers lots of Further Maths things like complex numbers and matrices. I still have no idea how either of them are relevant to civil engineering.
Probably my favourite lecture/lesson is interfaculty Japanese, which I somehow managed to get timetabled for me as a credited module instead of a optional (and uninteresting) engineering module after a bit of wiggling. Sure all we’ve learned so far is ten Hiragana and how to introduce ourselves (something I’m well up on) but I’m sure that I’ll get to something new in the next few weeks.

Socially I’ve been doing my best but haven’t exactly been partying hard. I’ve avoided any and all clubbing so far and most heavy drinking sessions, though I have joined the people in my block a few times for corridor parties. I seem to be getting on well with most people, though I haven’t found any single person that I’ve become particularly good friends with yet.
In other news… OH MAN THAT GODDAMN CLG EU VS WORLD ELITE GAME. I was up until 4am watching that and it still didn’t manage to conclude. Thank the benevolent gods for Jatt and Deman casting like bosses for 8 hours straight. Oh, and the finish to that CLG NA vs SK game was pretty intense.

That is all.

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A Train to Japan: Stardate 23798.5

Tuesday, August 7 2012 at 17:00 (Trips)

I’m travelling in some kind of alien craft that is capable of moving extremely fast, possibly due to to a device located in its pointed ‘beak’. Surroundings are not identifiable. I will write probably my last log here in the hopes that I will prevent others from attempting my foolish journey.

(So yeah, I’m on a Shinkansen for three hours and figured I might as well do some writing.)

So what’s happened? Well, a bunch of stuff. There was further time in Mimasaka, where lots of cool things happened, and then there’s been more travelling. In fact, my trip can be neatly divided into three two-week ‘arcs’: the journey out, Mimasaka and the travelling in Japan.

In terms of activities in Mimasaka, there were several more instances if playing with young children and them showing us their rad cup-and-ball skills (I can’t remember the Japanese name), meeting high school students, cleaning near a Buddhist temple and one especially memorable morning where we picked individual blades of grass on a golf course.
At one point I went to go and see a public viewing of the Japanese women’s football team playing their first Olympic game with my host family – the goalkeeper and captain are from Mimasaka and the team won the world cup last year, so it was a big thing locally. At the public viewing I inadvertently ended up being filmed and was apparently on NHK (national television station) the next day. On top of that we also had a camera guy following our volunteering exploits as a group and that has also produced several reports on local television.
There were a number of other activities we did, but really it was the people who made everything fun and interesting. All the volunteers (and the leader) in our group were just great to work with, all the locals were helpful and smiling, and my host family were saintly in their kindness. Going back to travelling on my own after having made such good friends over the two weeks is crushingly lonely by comparison, though I hope to meet a few people again before I leave.

In terms of travelling, so far I’ve been to Kyoto, Fukuoka and Nagasaki and I’m now on my way to Sendai. Kyoto was a brilliant city – I was with Allan the Belgian from Mimasaka for the first full days, and he led me on a leg-shattering tour of Kyoto’s six billion temples. The worst one was the one with 10,000 orange torii (archway thingies) on a mountainside where we got somewhat lost. We also went to the Shogun house place and looked at the outside of the imperial palace.
On the second day, now on my own, I took a more leisurely pace due to my leg pains and laziness and saw only the golden temple, one other famous one and the one with 1001 Buddha Kannon statues. Honestly, I kind of feel that many of the quiet, plain shrines in the Okayama countryside were far prettier than most of the blaring ones full of tourists.

Next I went to Fukuoka on Kyushu, where I experienced the worst hostel directions I’ve yet had. Overall Fukuoka didn’t really agree with me – there wasn’t that much to see, the subway coverage was poor and the museums weren’t overly interesting. The best parts were when I went paddling on the beach and when I ate some of the famous ramen noodles with locals in a roadside stall.

Next day I went on a day trip to Nagasaki, taking full advantage of the fact that my Japan Rail pass lets me ride any JR train I like except for a few specific Shinkansen lines. Nagasaki was really pretty and had a neat tram system for getting around. I spent most of my time in the nuclear bomb museum, which was very interesting and very atmospheric… at least until 2,000 Chinese tourists appeared. Honestly, they were terrible. ‘Hey, take a picture of me doing a funny pose next to this nuclear fallout chart!’ What the eff. Seriously.
I visited the nuclear bomb remembrance hall after the museum, which was thankfully totally empty and utterly silent.
The Chinese had taken over Nagasaki (more than usual, anyway) so I only visited the various other nuclear sites and a few temples then got a train back to Fukuoka.

I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a place at a hostel in Sendai because of the Tanabata festival, but fortunately I found one and all is good.

Loot-wise, I have a neat wooden bento box I made (also not so useful because European rice sucks), number of nice cards from people, assorted anime goods and some things from my host family’s shop.
In terms of things I’ve bought, I have a number of CDs: Holidays in the Sun (YUI), Birthday (ClariS), Prog-roid (school food punishment), Rock the World (Home Made Kazoku) and one Chatmonchy album I can’t read the name of but I know that I wanted. I still want the nano.RIPE album which is nowhere to be found, as well as Over the Border (Stereopony). Oh, and I bought a Star Driver artbook too.

(I’m now in Sendai as I’m publishing this but I’m too tired to update it in detail. Sendai is brilliant.)

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A Train to Japan Chapters 4-22 (synopsis part 2)

Monday, July 23 2012 at 16:55 (Trips)

So yes, after sixteen days of travel over land, over sea, under sea, across deserts and forests and under mountains I finally arrived at my destination in the land of the rising sun. I was more astonished than anybody that all this had gone through without any serious problems and not a single missed train. I even arrived in Mimasaka at the exact time I’d planned.
As before, I won’t go into details about my activities, but will attempt to give an overview of some Japanese things that I’ve done or experienced.

Living: The host family I’m staying with is very nice. The house I’m staying in actually belongs to the mother of my host mother and is very traditionally Japanese – the room I’m staying in even has tatami mats. The toilets are pretty scary, with most having a heated seat and some kind of bum-washing mechanism, and some having adjustable strengths of bum washing, different settings for men and women and even a playable flushing noise to cover the sound of your own urination.
Having to wear indoor shoes is a real pain, not because it’s a hassle but because the Japanese all have tiny feet and so the slippers are always too small and rather uncomfortable. The weather is extremely hot (30-35 degrees most of the time) but nearly everywhere has air conditioning so it’s only a problem outside. I’m travelling around mostly by bike, and despite the mountains Mimasaka is next to a river so the roads are relatively flat.

The work camp: I had some doubts about how I would find the work camp, but in fact it’s been really great so far, despite having to sit through a few boring speeches and also the endless need to introduce yourself formally to everyone (Konnichiwa minna-san! Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa Benedict Brown desu. Ingurisujin desu. Yoroshikunegaishimasu!)
The people are great – there’s Allan the Belgian, Maria the Russian, An the Vietnamese, Eunbee the Korean, Aleksi the Fin (living in Scotland), Noemi the Spaniard (from Barcelona), Daniel the German self-titled otaku*, Emanuele the Italian, Martin the Czech (and my housemate) and Marie the Japanese camp leader person.
*He claims to have watched a lot of anime but owns a One Piece t-shirt and had never heard of Star Driver, Hanasaku Iroha, Penguindrum, Ano Hana etc. He did know about Rinne no Lagrange but that more served to worry me about the kind of people that show is attracting rather than reassuring me.
The work we’ve been doing is varied and usually interesting. Today we played with preschool kiddies, a few days ago we were cutting flowers and showing local people things from our country.

Language: Unlike Polish, Russian, Mongolian and Chinese, I actually have some desire to learn Japanese, so have been trying to pick up as many new words and phrases as possible. It’s kind of bad that all the other volunteers know good English and mostly more Japanese than me as well as their native tongue, yet I’m just sat on a few scraps of various European languages and negligible Japanese by comparison. I feel very lazy.
Don’t let anyone tell you that cartoons don’t teach you anything though: Chobits taught me basic Japanese customs and I’d have never known the word for ‘cousin’ without Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko (or the words for electric waves, woman and young man for that matter).
Overall I think my Japanese is improving somewhat and I can interact with people on basic level. I’d like to learn some more complex sentence structures, but really I need to learn more vocabulary first.

Culture: The Japanese are crazy. Seriously. Their culture is just insane. Bookshops are usually around half manga and light novels and half other books, with even a supermarket in the countryside having vastly obscure volumes of manga that I wouldn’t even expect people to be aware of the existence of. I haven’t found a good CD shop yet, but when I do I will raid it so hard.
Apparently One Piece is really, REALLY big in Japan. I barely glanced at a Shounen Jump or something that happened to feature One Piece similar yesterday in an okonomiyaki shop and ended up leaving weighed down with related loot from the proprietor at no cost to myself. I haven’t had the heart to tell any Japanese person that I don’t actually like One Piece – I think they might keel over and die from the shock. Oh, if anybody reading this wants some One Piece loot, please tell me.
I went to a local festival a few days ago, which was a brilliant experience; the girls in our group wore yukata and the boys wore happi and we did traditional local dances and stuff. There was beer, takoyaki and fireworks and at one point I even got set upon by a group of Japanese high school girls who seemed to find me fascinating.
The hot springs are another very Japanese thingummy. The nice thing about them is that they’re not chlorinated, but they are also kind of excessively hot for this weather.
Oh, and Japanese television. Need I say more? The adverts are easily the best bits.

Food: Nihon no gohan wa hontou-ni hoishii desu! Well, most of the time. There are some things in Japan that are sweet that would normally be savoury in the west, such as sweet azuki bean paste, and it’s kind of jarring. I’m taking a try-anything approach to food on this trip, so I’m making sure that I eat at least some of everything that’s put in front of me, even if it looks strange (my mother is now scoffing angrily that I never take this attitude at home). So far I’ve had yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon with tempura, nikuman, sukiyaki, and yakitori, as well as obviously lots of rice and various other meats, fish and vegetables. Oh, and miso soup.
I still want to try taiyaki and Japanese strawberry cake. I’m currently using chopsticks perfectly well with my own somewhat avant-garde technique, but am trying to use the ‘proper’ grip whenever I don’t mind dropping my food everywhere. I tried natto and didn’t really like it, but it was early in the morning and I had an upset stomach, so maybe not the best time to try it. I also can’t get the hang of tofu – it’s extremely hard to pick up with chopsticks and tastes of nothing when plain, and only slightly of something when cooked in a sauce. I think it actually sucks flavour out of a meal.

Today we went to a game centre and visited a karaoke bar. Karaoke in Japan was actually popularised in Okayama prefecture (where I am), so there was even cultural background to it. All the silly gaijins wanted to sing silly western songs, but I proved my manliness by singing Shining*Star, Hana no Iro, Secret Base ~kimi ga kureta mono~ and Cross Over. The 9nine numbers were relatively easy, the nano.RIPE somewhat harder and the ZONE nearly impossible because the lyrics I had for the song were not correctly ordered (I had to read the lyrics off my phone instead of the screen because I can’t read hiragana fast enough). Still, it was a lot of fun and it gives me another item to scratch off my list of things to do in Japan.

Well, that’s life in Japan so far. Further updates will probably contain more of what I’m actually doing and less overview, so look forward to it. (Or don’t.)

More emoticons:
(♯`∧´) (−_−#)
ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=┌(; ̄◇ ̄)┘
*・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・'(*゚▽゚*)’・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*
(The Japanese iPhone keyboard is worth it just for this)

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A Train to Japan Chapters 4-22 (synopsis part 1)

Sunday, July 22 2012 at 16:10 (Trips)

It’s been a while. Perhaps you thought me dead, murdered by strange Russian men, or trampled by Mongolian goats? Perhaps you hoped this would be so, such that you would not find yourself so consistently outshone by my own brilliance?
Fear not (or fear more greatly), for I am alive and well and in Japan.

So why have I not written for such a long time? Well, first I was on a train in the middle of nowhere for six days, which kind of put a damper on any blogging activities, then I was in China where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress are all blocked. Yet I have spent the last six days in (mostly) restriction-free Japan and have not written, why? Well because I’m lazy and I’ve been reading Harry Potter and playing VVVVVV instead, that’s why.

So given that so much has happened, I will endeavour to summarise rather than relay everything I’ve noted in my written log.

The Trans-Mongolian train: I found it eventually with the help of evidently all the foreigners in Moscow, who all seemed to be about to board the train. The train was actually possibly the least comfortable of all the sleepers and had no showers and very basic facilities, so washing was difficult. Food in the restaurant car was expensive and took a long time, so I mostly lived on a diet of crisps and whatever else I could by at the small Russian station stalls.
I met a number of people on the train, the most significant of which were Lize the South African who was my sole cabin mate in a four-berth compartment and Jasper the Cool American, who was a guy from Los Angeles who spoke Mandarin. The days were rather uninteresting: endless taiga punctuated by occasional stops transitioning eventually into desert in Mongolia and then finally into gorgeous mountainsides as we entered China. The most interesting place we stopped was Ulaanbataar, and even that was pretty dull. Still a fascinating experience, though.

China: China was really hot and really full of people. I realise that ‘lots of people’ is kind of China’s thing, but it has to be said because it’s such a big part of what being in China is like. Beijing is a great city full of nice buildings and people, with a fast subway that is easy to navigate and cheap (2 yuan per journey = 20p). At my hostel (which was essentially luxury after six days on a train) I met Daria the Polish English teacher working in China on pretend sick leave and Roger the Very American American. We visited the Great Wall together which was exhausting yet rewarding and also talked a lot. Apart from the GWoC I visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, both of which personified China perfectly by being gigantic, really hot and full of people.
The train to Shanghai is the fastest in the world at 300km/h and would have been wonderful were it not for the Chinese passengers. The Chinese like to spit and also make their bodily functions as loud as possible, so naturally I ended up sat next to a man who sniffed with a sound like a jump jet exploding every thirty seconds whose ladyfriend had incidentally stolen my window seat. I had three and a half hours of this to Nanjing, then one and a half of blissful peace.
Shanghai was a shithole, no nice way of saying it. The hostel was somewhat crummy and I managed to spend a total of nearly six hours wandering around trying to find an international ferry port that was nowhere near any metro stations and had minimal signage – none of which were aimed at pedestrians even though none of the ferries carry cars. Bah.

The Ferry: I had doubts about the ferry, and even more after my misadventures in Shanghai, but after having finally bought my ticket and boarded, I found that it was actually very pleasant. It was comfortable and clean, there was food that was cheap and delicious and best of all most of the passengers were Japanese people rather than Chinese, so far less spitting and snorting. The highlight of the voyage to Osaka was going between the mainland and the southernmost island of Japan with spectacular views on both sides and the sea breeze on my face.

Japanese trains: Osaka has the most complicated subway ticket machines I’ve ever seen. They do, however, happily accept ¥10,000 (~£80) notes with no qualms at all and full change from my ¥350 purchase. I went to Shin-Osaka and bought a ticket that was actually cheaper than what I’d seen online and then went to find my train. Annoyingly, Japanese trains only seem to show their final destination and not intermediate stops. I have no idea how one is meant to find these out normally, but fortunately I got help from an assistant.
I wasn’t waiting for just any train, though. Oh no. This was a Super Hakuto 7. Not only did it look cooler than the normal trains, it was also twice as fast and twice as comfortable. I giggled to myself when we easily overtook a regular train going at full speed. I then took a local train from Sayo to Hayashino that was much slower but much prettier in terms of views of Japanese countryside.
When I did finally reach Hayashino station in Mimasaka, I sadly ran out of enthusiasm and time for writing and decided to finish this with a second part tomorrow.

Here are some Japanese emoticons to ease the wait:
ヾ(@⌒ー⌒@)ノ
♪(*^^)o∀*∀o(^^*)♪
☆*:.。. o(≧▽≦)o .。.:*☆

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A Train to Japan Chapter 3: Russia is too Russian

Tuesday, July 3 2012 at 15:23 (Trips)

So last time I set off bravely to explore some of Warsaw. I didn’t get very far – it was far too hot for extended exploring and the grassy area turned out to be fenced off for something football related, so all I could do was gaze longingly at the shade under the trees. Shortly after that a random Polish guy came and talked at me. He was either drunk, insane or trying to steal my stuff. Possibly all of the above. I ran away.

I fretted for a while about what to get to eat on the train and ended up with a sandwich, bag of crisps and a gigantic apple. Eventually it was time to board the sleeper to Moscow, called the ‘Polonez’. It wasn’t that different from the Jan Kiepura except there were three beds to a compartment instead of six. Somehow though, I ended up with a compartment all to myself – this meant that I was lonely and had no-one to watch my stuff, but on the other hand I finally had a window seat/bed. I sat and read Harry Potter+Philostone for the six or so hours it took to reach the Belarus border.

I was mildly terrified about the Belarus border since it would be the first test of my visa escapades. I was given a migration card which I filled in to the best of my ability and also worried that if we reached the Russian border before midnight, I could be thrown off the train due to the dates on my visa. The border control check took a while but I was handed back my passport and migration cards with exciting stamps and nobody even jabbed me with an AK47! Things were going well.

Shortly after passing the Belarusian border we had to stop to change our train from standard gauge (5ft 6in if my memory serves) to Russian gauge (6ft exactly). This involved literally jacking up the whole train and swapping the wheelsets. Sadly from my position on the train I didn’t actually get to see the process happen, but it was pretty neat nonetheless.
Whilst stopped a number of crazy Belarusian ladies came up to the train to sell us food and alcohol. I declined. A helpful stoner couple on the train were not English but did seem to speak English/Russian/Polish so translated some key details for me.

Did I mention all of the cool Russian rolling stock? There was a lot of it. Being on the sleeper made me grateful for all of my recently acquired railway knowledge and also my experience with sleeping in noisy, rocking boat cabins. I sat and watched the moon go by for a bit then went to sleep.

I was expecting to be attacked by Russian border control in the wee hours of the morning but evidently Belarus border control also cleared you for Russia, as I didn’t awake until some kind of sensible time like 6:45 (that’s 4:45 UK time). I slept on and off until we arrived in Moskva Belorusskaya around 11.
Moscow is terrifyingly Russian, so Russian that you kind of feel like someone is pulling an elaborate joke. I think it’s mostly the Cyrillic and the architecture but it’s really unmistakeable for anywhere else in the world. The first thing you see when you leave the platform is a huge set of flower beds – that was reassuring somehow.
I changed 100USD into Roubles and went in search of the metro station, which turned out to be hidden around a corner with the smallest ‘M’ sign possible despite being a sizeable building. I managed to beat a ticket out of a machine and somehow got on the right train to the correct station, where my departing station for the trans-Mongolian is. The metro is grand, with chandeliers and faux pillars, but is poorly laid out and not very tourist friendly. I dropped off my big bag by giving it and some cash to a man in a hole in the wall. Unsure if I’d ever see my belongings again, I set off for Red Square.

Sadly for probably the biggest and most iconic tourist attraction in Russia, Red Square is poorly signed for those not knowing any Russian. I only found it myself by looking up which metro station to go to before I left, and even then I gad to do a fair bit of wandering to reach it. The Kremlin is smaller than I imagined but still eminently photographable, though still probably better in snow than the baking heat of the time. The architecture was all round pretty great, very… Russian, and totally incomparable to the squared-off concrete blocks that are out in the countryside.

By this point I was incredibly thirsty and set off to the Red Square McDonalds where I met a Canadian couple inside who couldn’t help me with Cyrillic but did give me a Canada badge instead… ‘kay. For those scoffing at my lack of adventurousness food-wise, be aware that ordering here was a deeply cultural experience: Sure I just got 0.8l of Coke and a chicken wrap, but I had to point and mime my arse off for it. It’s also notably the first time I’ve ordered from a McDonalds in any country. So there. Also there was the deep irony of being near a monument of communist government and going all ‘Capitalism ho, bitches!’ (Anyone who gets that reference wins 10 Roubles.)

There was no wifi in McDonalds so I had to text home to check something about registering visas that I was unsure about – turns out that I’m fine and it’s just that the advice given on my migration card was a year out of date. I’m spending less than seven working days in Russia, so don’t need to register.

Red Square is pretty good but kind of bleak. Right near it, however, is a beautiful garden area with loads of trees, flowers, grass and fountains. It’s the first time so far that I’ve felt compelled to take a lot of pictures; it really is that pretty. There’s even a Doric facade with metopes, but their columns only have 16 flutes, the jokers. I also saw some ceremony involving guards duckwalking around, not sure what for but there were lots of people watching so it was probably something well-known.

Overall right now I don’t mind being a camera-toting tourist if I get to look at stuff like this.

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At Train to Japan Chapter 2: Sleepers With No Sleep

Monday, July 2 2012 at 11:29 (Trips)

Day one of my awesomely epic journey began in modesty – with the regular train from Diss to Liverpool Street. The biggest difference from usual was that I was travelling first class and thus didn’t have to associate with any dreadful ruffians. I spoke briefly to a rather nice middle-class woman who asked me where I was going given that I had a large bag and a crazy woman waving me off through the window. She seemed rather impressed by my intended trip.

Arriving in London, I boarded a Metropolitan line tube that turned out to be not only cool and spacious, but also kind of empty. Thankfully the tube was fully functional despite it being a Sunday. St Pancras was okay, the check-in was painless though the security checks are no different from an airport and thus still annoying. The Eurostar itself was full of ruffians, including a number who were carrying about 2-3 times my quantity of luggage. The journey was bearable, but no window seat.

On arrival in Brussels I spotted a guy who I knew was English who had been on my Eurostar looking bemusedly at map on the wall. We began talking and discovered that although we were both headed to Cologne, I was on an earlier Thalys whilst he had a later ICE. My new friend Patrick and I went in search of tea and after walking around the station (which is helpfully Brussels Sud and Midi at the same time) we eventually found a tea shop full of Belgians playing board games. Patrick was cool. He’s an Oxford student who lives literally opposite my favourite burrito bar. He was going to Helsinki to study anthills for seven weeks for his dissertation. He also knew the first few lines of book 4 of the Aeneid off by heart after studying it in GCSE Latin. If that’s not cool I don’t know what is.

I eventually bid Patrick adieu and went up to the platform to find my Thalys. Again, the train wasn’t uncomfortable but still no window seat. There was an English couple next to me about my age, but they had a soppy pre-bought ‘travel scrapbook’ (as opposed to a manly blog) and voiced a fondness for Russell Brand films.

Arriving in Cologne I looked around for some schnitzel, but none was forthcoming. I refused to eat at either the Asian cuisine or sushi bars in the station, so for some reason ended up with Pizza Hut. No idea why, it was vile. I saw the first goal of the football then went outside to the Dom (cathedral) which was right next to the station. It was very pretty and pleasantly cool, but unfortunately there were some unpleasant punks (literally punks with Mohawks etcetera) who were shouting loudly and being annoying.

I went back inside to find the platform for my train to Warsaw (called the Jan Kiepura sleeper) and chatted briefly with another English guy and also saw Patrick again briefly – it seems that the train to Warsaw and Copenhagen is the same and just splits. The sleeper itself was somewhat cramped and hotter than the fires of hell. Also a guy in my couchette read with his light on until quite late. Takeaway from this is that I got very little sleep.

Today I woke up all too early and read Harry Potter on the Kindle for three hours before we arrived. After navigating Warsaw Centralna’s mazelike layout for a while I eventually calculated a (apparently) near-exact exchange rate for Polish Zloty using a Mars bar as a metric, and so withdrew an appropriate amount.

I then sat in Starbucks and blogged for an hour and a half since there’s power and wifi. That’s right, I came all this way to be served by Poles in Starbucks. Why did I go on this trip again?

There’s some kind of park thing nearby, so I’m going to go look at that.

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