Japan-Korea travel diary

I have always admired great travel writers who capture the personal yet quintessential essentials of a country, culture or certain people. It seems that the current day travel author is more likely to jot in some hurried notes into a Nokia Communicator, while trying to get his digital camera to work in time for capturing whatever glimpse of reality outside meeting rooms, airport lobbies and conference venues he has momentary access into.

And apologies for everyone, particularly for the photographs. (See here) 🙂 It just is not so easy to get any pictures of the bigger picture you are in, so to speak.


DAY 1. – It is Sunday 10:30 local time, I am sitting on a bus from Tokyo airport to the main station and I don’t have an idea what it is now according to my internal clock. Probably way too much; I feel like shit. Took couple of pictures of Espen and myself. Yeah. Guess I look like it, too.

Left-sided traffic. Wonder where did that come from? This is a surprisingly green country. Everybody has been only talking about the hyper-urban aspects of Japan, but there is the countryside, too. Lots of pretty gardens.

Later. Forgot my digital camera in the bus, was so totally wasted. Got it back half an hour later with the help of Espen and the super-friendly & organised Limousine Bus staff. Then to the hotel. More super-friendly service, and also total strangers offering their help on the road. Maybe this whole country is like this? Amazing. Big metropolises are usually inhospitable places, but not so in Tokyo.

DAY 2. – Monday. Suppose it is the holiday season in Japan, but we’ll go out to the shopping district in any case. Culinary issues are yet another matter. You can find almost anything here, even if the omnipresent “noodle and things” bars dominate at the street-level. Of yesterday’s two meals the first was in a conveyer-belt sushi place (nice, but not any cheaper or high-quality than the sushi I’ve been served with in Finland), the other one might have been “French” cuisine, but we were not sure. The way to treat the ingredients was so thoroughly Japanese that there was little left of the potential French originals.

After a long day of walking about in central Tokyo (Ginza mostly, I suppose), we spent the evening with Javier Salazar (doing sociology PhD on massively multiplayers in the Tohaku Gakuin University) who first introduced us to the Okonomi-yaki (sort of “salad pancake”; really delicious), and then to the Sega Joypolis entertainment centre. Fine place, particularly the level of 3D in the “Dark Chapel” ride was impressive. Some items were not so, though (please stay away from the “van Helsing” thing). Late night sushi afterwards for Espen, I had an ice-cream. And the Santori time, of course. 🙂

DAY 3. – Still in Tokyo. Somewhat a slow start after the late night yesterday. Missed breakfast, then walk to the imperial garden paths (Japanese black-crows kept on laughing at us). Beautiful spot of nature at the centre of metropolis.

Espen’s friend took us to a lunch at the Tokyo University, after which we had a meeting with some of the games researchers there. Good to see that multidisciplinary study of games is taking off also here. With all that extremely vibrant Asian games culture, it would be a shame if all game academics would be from West.

Afternoon and evening were spend in the Akihabara region, which has an endless suply of games, media and IT stores. Very impressive experience. Also very expensive. My next credit card bill will be frightening…

It is again already 1 am local time. Adaptation really takes days. Jet lag has been terrible.

DAY 4. – The breakfast restaurant at the Grand Palace Hotel is fine, with their Japanese-waterfall-garden-behind-the-glasswall style, but there was some confusion whether our breakfasts were included with room price, or not. Even while I made sure about that on the first night it seems not to be the common practise here.

On the airport limousine bus again. Getting here was troublesome. We should have taken a taxi direct into the TCAT bus terminal, but instead we aimed into a JR Express train from the central Tokyo station, and took a subway. After dragging heavy luggage up and down stairs and along long corridors, we just realized that trains go so rarely that we might be late from the check-in with the next one. Then, there was another series of adventures in and around the Tokyo station before we did find the bus into TCAT. That central station is a huge, messy place – one to be avoided by any means.

Phew. I am dripping sweat all over my seat.

DAY 5. – Ok. Korea today. COEX Intercontinental Hotel seems more modern than the one we stayed in Japan. Traffic jam from the airport was colossal yesterday. But the weather is sunny and everything looks fine. Time for the conference.

Evening now. This is sort of nice, casual event, more national by character rather than international conference. Just by making the information delivery, scheduling etc. a bit more systematic and organised this will be very good place indeed for discussions about the various, global gaming cultures. Went next for a Buddhist temple walk, and almost lost ourselves into the giant COEX mall after today’s session. Nice dinner in Level 34. Hope there will be more time tomorrow to actually see some of Seoul.

DAY 6. – Ok, this was another busy day. First to G– electronics market (not really time there, just scratched the surface of one block full of various e-toys), then into a line-up of lectures and meetings. Got an audience of maybe 20 listeners. Rather exhaustive day. Now at the hotel. They have the Matrix Reloaded running, with Korean subtitles.

DAY 7. – This is a long trip. Luckily, I got my tickets for home travel yesterday (finally!) so it looks like that I will be hitting the base station in c. three days. Today some temple walking, then lectures, then perhaps a shopping raid…

At the lobby bar, 9 pm. Ok, this should be my final night in Seoul. Just got rid of my stack of won in the COEX shopping mall – to the last penny. More Studio Chibli DVD movies for my collection, and some Kiki’s Delivery Service toys. Off with Aphra and the Irish delegation now.

DAY 8. – At a min-bus. Last night actually proved to be rather fun. We were in a strange micro brewery/German music bar place at the COEX complex, had some beer, laughed and relaxed a bit. Irish are definitely one of the best people to spend your evening with. It seems also that both our game design business and game research have some similar challenges and interest areas. So, lets hope we can do also something together in the future.

Well, to sum up, there were aspects of this trip that were very stimulating, well-organised and focused. On the other hand, the conference itself is not yet at the level of an international event, and there was confusion due to lack of communication, poor advance planning and lacking documentation. The generosity and friendliness of our Korean hosts however helped to get over the question marks that we were having during these days. And probably in the future, with more experience and more international collaboration, Koreans can indeed be an important force in games research as well. They already dominate the online games market, with their 50 % global market share. The language barrier nevertheless remain rather high, and much needs to be done to understand the (game)cultural differences better. That is one big area for an international games research initiative.

Lines of blazing yellow sunflowers by the sides of this road. Oh… I suppose it will be freezing already in Finland… The van-Goghian moment of the trip quickly vanishes into the dust of airport highway.

At the flight (a KLM jumbo headed for Amsterdam). Apart from the requirement to produce a travel report, there is actually very little incentive to write this kind of notes. The world is already mapped and analysed, and you can easily find various kinds of travel guides that contain great amount of useful information about any part of the world. There is also little chance that I would be able to some up with some useful realization about Japanese or Korean game cultures, for example, during only with a few days of hurried visit. I could see that there was a huge domestic PS2 market in Japan, for example, and that PC games did not play any major part (obviously most Japanese do not have a home PC, e.g. their emails are based on mobile communication). But for example the Korean Lineage community is virtual and you never see it at the streets. It is only present indirectly: the teen-agers’ discussions, Lineage II advertisements in the metro, the game music concert that was advertise all around in the street posts in the cultural district of Seoul. Obviously, games and game playing is very much at the mainstream of Korean culture and society. Yet, as we discussed with Korean games researchers, it also became clear that there are tensions inside Korea towards games, in their public perception and acceptance, even if the Korean government is perhaps the most supportive towards games in the world. (They are aiming at 100 000 games related jobs by 2008, if I remember John’s words correctly – and that would be one major industry then, worldwide.)

So – flying over China currently. There is the Gobi desert below. Wonder if that makes me a China visitor as well?

Probably fell asleep for a while during Shrek 2 was running in the aeroplane TV. Would rather see that in more favourable conditions. Now it is The Terminal again; guess there are reasons for that being carriers’ favourite at the moment… I am cramped in a window seat, with the huge bulk of emergency exit slide occupying most of my legroom. Six hours still left. And then another six from Amsterdam to Finland.

Reise, Reise Seemann Reise
Und die Wellen weinen leise
Im ihrem Herzen steckt ein Speer
Bluten sich am Ufer leer
(-rammstein // reise, reise-)

Still on this damned plane. Eight hours done, three still to go. Suppose I shouldn’t complain, they have done good speed and we’re almost an hour ahead of the schedule. But this kind of cramped confinement could well be classified as an inhuman form of punishment, I think, if it were introduced today into our judiciary system. — The only plus: from this window seat, I can follow the slow but fascinating, almost poetic movements of cloud masses above the Euro-Asian continent. Have been doing that for some hours now…

Finally. We’ll soon land to the Amsterdam airport (Schiphol, some pronounce it “shit-hole”, I don’t know why), and will touch the European ground again. Europa. It is actually easier to perceive the cultural, historical and geographical identity of our continent after spending some time in Asia. Despite all the considerable differences between European cultures, people, languages and countries, it actually rather easy to feel at home here. The cultural heritage creates an important shared background that resonates in the perception and production of meaning in various levels. It is relatively easy to perceive the “aura” of significance of cultural forms that are rooted in familiar framework. Crossing major cultural distances presents us with different kinds of challenges.

In the Helsinki plane. Pheww. The last catch (I hope!) — I almost lost this connection. I had checked the time and destination, and was at the gate c. 1 hour before. The signs were referring to Finnair, rather than KLM, but then again, many of these flights are jointly operated and have multiple codes. About 15 minutes before take-off, at the entrance queue, I made a question about the KLM-Finnair bonus scheme, and the I was told that there was actually another Helsinki flight, leaving exactly at the same time, but from a completely different terminal! That was probably one of the fastest runs through Schiphol. Five minutes before the take-off, I still just about managed to get into the plane.

Travelling is just too stressful for me. But road goes on. Perhaps three hours still before I reach Aki and Satu, who kindly promised that I can crash into their new Helsinki apartment for this night. Oh, well — there is a tired hyperactive child behind me, and he wants to spend the flight kicking and hitting my seat from behind. Thump, thump…

11 pm. Finland. It is wet, cold, and the taxi driver has serious flu and is constantly sneezing and coughing. Great to be back. Tomorrow morning, my day will start with a meeting at 9 am, so I have gone a full circle, starting from a meeting, going around half the world, and returning to a meeting. I hope I will get my laundry done home before the Turku travel next weekend…

rhythm of travel

These days, my life seems to be dancing after the beat of travel. After Germany, it was intense weeks of catching up, then making everything ready for this next trip. Now it is last night (my flight for Tokyo and Seoul via Copenhagen leaves early tomorrow) and there are still couple of projects, courses and some DiGRA stuff to take care for. It is all a bit like waves. And also sort of crazy. I wonder how Japan and Korea will feel like?

Korea Games Conference: http://kgc.gameinfinity.or.kr/en/

home from a mixed reality castle trip

I have just got home from a series of connecting flights (and taxis and bus trips) that were needed in order to transmit me from Castle Birlinghoven, Germany to Tampere. We had really interesting and intense week in launching a major new European games initiative. Titled IPerG, it stands for “Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming” and it aims to understand the future of digital games as more physical and “surrounding” experiences. While it is easy to come up with examples of location aware mobile game concepts or games based on gesture recognition or some other sensor technologies, it is much harder to define what is a “pervasive game”, what are the guidelines for designing those things, and how to evaluate the quality of pervasive game play experience. Heading the work-package on those issues, our Tampere team will have to work hard in the next three and a half years (yep, it is a major research project) to come up with some answers. (There is a temporary website.)

While I was away, there was some glitch in my home network (or, in the ISP side), and there was about three thousand mails in line (most of them spam, of course). Luckily, it seems that the unet.fi server was not affected.

good games, bad theory?

Bought a mini-arcade console with Pac-Man and some other Namco classics (from Jakks TV Games) yesterday for our Lab. It is definitely fun and also educational visiting those early 1980s games with a joystick and button that at least tries to emulate the original arcade experience. And these actually also can be classified into “casual games” under current standards. Particularly Bosconian (which I had never before played) had some genuine holding power.

There has been lately discussions in the DiGRA’s free mailing list (Gamesnetwork@uta.fi) on the value of “theory” for game studies. If you are interested in those lines of thinking, you might consider subscribing (link). But here just a snippet: this is part of what I mailed there today:

IGDA uses great motto, “Make Better Games”, and I have sometimes suggested that in DiGRA we could adopt something a bit similar, “Make Better Game Research”. There are numerous questions that our researchers, for example, are currently working on: Who are actually playing games? What games they play? Why they play those games? Are there some fundamental cognitive and emotional elements, or modes of visual aesthetic, “grammar and syntax” of interaction, or something from narratology, media studies, cultural studies etc. that we can identify, analyse and describe in games and game playing? And when we have some fundamentals like that in our hands, then we need some meta-level constructs, theories that help us to discuss how all these things relate to each other. In the long run, all this will advance science and our understanding of this odd thing, “games”, and what kind of beings we are as we enjoy and invent them.
And, I suppose, we need not only games-informed games designers, but also researchers, teachers, critics, and even school-children who are given tools that help them to put into words and analyse why certain games might carry value and significance, why some others are problematic, and precisely in which terms. I am not sure if the only thing we’ll say in academia to those teachers is “design, design, design”, that we’ll do the job we should.

evening news: toys, tech and games entering the academia

Some kind Anonymous reminded me that there is the Gizmodo blog on tech toys — thanks, I should have remembered that, of course. My world would be much more dull without its always stimulating series of posts where the latest Apple Powerbook meets Sega’s “Near Me”, the robotic cat (link).

There was a note on Grand Text Auto that pointed me to a GameSpot article on academics and computer games (link). If you are interested in learning particularly about work and thought of Janet Murray (Georgia Tech) or Gonzalo Frasca (IT University Copenhagen) then you do well by checking this piece.

Ok, I have to write some words of introduction to our game studies Masters’ Course students now. See you again later!

attack of gizmo sites

Yesterday, I posted a note into a fun site “We Make Money Not Art” into a thread which contained interesting list of location-based mobile games about our Mogame research project. Browsing its gadget-and-geek filled pages, I started to wonder how many interesting and enthusiastic art-sci-tech sites there are, after all? Taken from the top of my geeky favorites, there are: Slashdot, Wired Gizmo News, Tom’s Hardware Guide, Google Sci/Tech News, just to mention very few. — What are your favorites?

syndicated nights, simulated lights

This night, I have been learning about syndication of this medium (Atom and RSS converted XML feeds the result) and ruining my eyes by doing it in front of a TV screen. The resolution, sharpness and refresh rate of a CRT-based television set is just not yet up to the point where you could actually work in front of it. Video streams and digital photographs look nice, but everything else makes my head hurt. When I closed the browser finally, after several hours, to turn away from the shiny world of bits and simulation, and clicked the remote, the first thing to catch my eye was a documentary about original Matrix movie (in SubTV). Talking about serendipity…