Life

Burgess in Tokyo

Adrift in a land awash in wireless TV.

By Steve Burgess 16 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess usually reviews films bi-weekly for The Tyee. But for the next two weeks, he'll be writing about his travels through Asia instead.

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Wireless nation

[Editor's note: Wanderlust has again gripped Steve Burgess right in the...Well, suffice it to say he's on the road in Asia and writing home to The Tyee once a week. Here's the first dispatch.]

OK, Mom and Dad. Stop worrying. The tsunami warning was cancelled.

That's the trouble with checking Google News and seeing global stories like last Saturday's bulletin, "Tsunami warning issued for Japan." Sometimes you read them in Japan. Tokyo is my first stop on another six-week Asian tour that will take me across Japan, then on to Bangkok, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Happily, no wave struck. Besides, I'm more worried about you guys. How are you holding up despite the ACTRA strike? How I wish I could be there to lend a humanitarian hand. If it makes you feel better, I'm experiencing my own media brownout here. There are no English channels in my cosy Tokyo hotel room, and I am forced to make do.

I have been particularly enjoying one Japanese show. I believe it's about a newlywed and her meddlesome mother-in-law. They get into wacky misunderstandings and get out again, and along the way we learn something about ourselves. I have learned that I am so pathetic I will stare at a Japanese sitcom with no subtitles, incapable of simply turning off the TV. Travel can truly be a journey of self-discovery.

TV lessons

Japanese TV has taught me that not all households are so harmonious. There were newscasts last week featuring ominous footage of a crime scene where it seemed a body had been discovered. These shots were followed by grainy photographs of an attractive woman. An unfortunate victim, I surmised. Until next day when I picked up the English-language Japan Times and discovered that the woman in the photos -- one Kaori Mihashi -- was still with us. The body under the tarp was once her husband. Part of him, anyway -- she had smacked him over the head repeatedly with a wine bottle while he slept, then sliced him up with power tools and distributed his remains around Japan. It seems to be the talk of Tokyo. I will keep watching my favourite sitcom, aware that as happy and innocent as the domestic situation seems now, there is always the possibility that someone will end up all over town in several suitcases.

But whether you understand it or not, Japanese TV is everywhere. It's even on subway trains thanks to a recent Japanese trend: wireless TV. Cellphones and laptops already capable of picking up wireless Internet signals now pick up wireless TV signals as well, put out by the major broadcasters here. Seven or eight channels are available for free to anyone with the right technology, easily acquired. Cellphone screens pivot to become small horizontal viewers (when they are not busy being cameras, of course). Cellphones also come with locks to prevent unauthorized usage in case of theft. This in a country where you can leave your suitcase on a sidewalk overnight and pick it up next day; a country where you can leave your laptop sitting in a café and head off to the restroom without even asking someone to watch over it for you.

Luxury laptops

OK, I'm back. Laptop still here. But if I needed a new one, I wouldn't have to look far. Behind my hotel is Akihabara, the electronics district offering a riot of technology largely unavailable back home. In a modern parody of the typical Asian produce market, narrow Akihabara lanes are lined with baskets full of circuitry, USB connectors, digital memory cards and the like. Some of the stuff is pretty cool. It's also pretty expensive -- I saw a new laptop from NEC Direct with a fabulously bright, clear, high-definition screen and numerous other features. The price at one store: 184,000 yen, or roughly $18,000.

I bought something in Akihabara. I found it in one of those baskets in front of an electronics store. It's a desktop curling set. No circuitry -- just little plastic curling rocks with a little plastic sheet to play on. That's what a Canadian buys in Akihabara. And that's probably why, regardless of how far ahead Japan may get in trivial areas like science and technology, Canada will always dominate in curling. It's a matter of priorities.

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