Saturday, April 22, 2017

Deciphering Akihabara signs

When I first came to Akihabara I couldn't help but feeling frustrated by the fact that I wasn't able to understand most of the signs on its buildings. 10 years later I don't have such problem anymore. In this post, I want to give you sort of a glimpse of what kind of stuff is written out there.

Let's start with the easy ones. If you learn katakana, which consists of only 48 characters, you'll be able to read quite a few words and luckily guess their meaning. (1) has カラオケ written on it which reads Karaoke, so that whole building is full of karaoke rooms. There is another sign in that building that starts with 本 (hon = book) and continues with Book Off. Book Off is a famous franchise where you can buy (and read) second-hand books and manga. (2) has ラジオセンター which reads as rajio sentaa and means radio centre (could you guess it?). Radio centre is almost a historical place already, full of electronic veterans in small stands selling electronics, amateur radio equipment and lots of retro stuff. (3) GEO is the name of a well-known DVD, Game and Manga rental franchise. But it seems it's started a mobile offering. On this sign you can see the words 格安スマホ (kakuyasu sumaho = supercheap smartphones) written. 格安 is often used on signs so it's easy to remember. (4) This one has English on it so you should know what it is about. インターネットまんが喫茶 (Internet Manga Kissa = Internet & Comics cafe) is a place where you can chill and rest your feet. Usually you get your own little compartment where you can seat, use a computer with Internet, read comics (if you are able to) and have some soft drinks. The value for the price is really good and it's something you can only experience here. In smaller characters you can read 完全分煙 (Kanzen Bun'en = smoking and non-smoking areas are completely separated), シャワー完備 (shawaa Kanbi = Fully-equipped Showers), スマホ充電OK (sumaho juuden OK = it's OK to charge your smartphone), 24時間営業 (24 jikan eigyou = 24 hours business), コムコム秋葉原点 (komukomu akihabara ten = komukomu akihabara shop, where komu means that it gets full of people), 当ビル5F受付 (toubiru 5F uketsuke = reception on the 5th floor of this building). Below the sign we have a 麻雀 mahjong shop saying ウエルカム which you should understand if you learned katakana (welcome). And right below that, on the 2nd and 3rd floor (in Japan the count starts at 1) we have a maid cafe, another place you should try at least once. On the first floor we see the 24時間 sign again, and 富士そば (Fuji soba) where you can eat soba. (5) We see まんが喫茶 again and then 免税商店 (menzei shouten = tax-free shop) which are all around in Akihabara. 歓迎光臨 is Chinese but the first two characters have also meaning in Japanese (歓迎 Kangei = welcome), so basically they are targeting potential Chinese/Taiwanese buyers. (6) Akihabara is the land of anime and games. Just by taking a look around you can catch up with the latest trends or learn of new anime series to come. 明日のステージへ! (ashita no suteeji e) means something like "towards tomorrow's stage). TVアニメ好評放送中 (TV anime kouhyou housouchuu = TV anime with good critics currently on show) is something you find all the time when you walk into an anime or manga shop. Below that sign we can see 日本武道館, this is Nippon budoukan a place where many famous music bands have played. Not surprising we can see there's going to be a live performance (note that the anime, BanG Dream, is about music) there on the 21st of August, 2017. チケット最速先行 (chiketto saisoku senkou) means that tickets are sold on a first-come-first-served basis. If you read this now, you can go to the BanG Dream official site and see the same advertisements about the "4th Live". In this kind of concerts you can see the people that are behind those anime songs and voices you like so much. (7) We see again another sign about BanG Dream, it must be something big. But let's decipher the sign in black&red. 鉄道模型 (tetsudou mokei = train models) is a shop where they sell stuff for making your own train models. This area in particular has many other shops for modeling trains, tanks, planes, gundam figures and stuff like that.

I had 2 more pictures to decipher but I guess this post took already too long. I will let you "relax" watching a few excerpts from a BanG Dream's live!.

Conclusions: the main takeaway from this post is that if you come to Japan for the first time and you want to understand something from what's written on Japanese signs, then you better learn katakana. That will help you understand words such as rajio (radio), sentaa (centre), sumaho (smartpho[ne]), shawaa (shower), uerukamu (welcome), suteeji (stage), intaanetto (internet), biru (buil[ding]), or chiketto (ticket).

Sunday, April 16, 2017


The Shōwa period in Japan refers to the years when the Shōwa Emperor Hirohito reigned (1926~1989). For a lot of people around the world, these years and particularly the 60s, 70s and 80s were somehow very special. Shōwappoi (昭和っぽい) is a Japanese expression commonly used to describe a place or object from those good old times, or anything that has such retro look.

I really like walking around Japanese Shōwappoi neibourghoods and see the remains of that era. This photo was taken near one of the 53 stations of the old Tōkaidō road, the Shinagawa-juku (a few minutes from Shinagawa station).

Coming from Tokyo station, there is this Shōwappoi place called Yūraku concourse that I find particularly interesting. It connects Yūrakuchō and Ginza. You can eat under that little bridge just in front of a few old samurai movie posters. There are many other Shōwappoi places in Tokyo such as Sugamo, which additionally has a beautiful park called Rikugien, or Nippori.

山本高樹 (Yamamoto Takaki) is a master of Shōwappoi dioramas. He has written two books on Shōwa dioramas, you can buy them here and here.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pinguchan: a book for children

After I started attending life drawing sessions a year ago, my motivation for painting also started to grew. I learned new techniques for painting with watercolours, and a few months later I wrote my first book for children: Pinguchan goes back to school. Pinguchan is named after the Spanish for penguin (pingüino).

The book has 14 pages (excluding the cover) and is available for purchase in Spanish or Japanese on Amazon kindle (you need to install the app in your phone/tablet). The book is distributed without DRM. You can also download a free copy in my broken English here and help me to fix the translation, I promise it will remain free of charge.

After reading a few children books, I started sketching mine. One thing I knew from the beginning is that I wouldn't be able to use the realistic style I was used to. I had no experience with more iconic drawings but I knew that it was going to be necessary for me to learn how to do them.

At first, I didn't think too much about the story. I just kept penciling one page a day, usually after work. Once I wrote them all I put them on the floor of my room and tried to visualize the story as a whole. I removed some parts, added others and even changed the order of some pages.

Once I felt satisfied with the story I started painting them all. For the painting, I used my watercolours and stretched the paper afterwards using the binder clips method I explained before. Then, I scanned the original works, cleaned them with the computer and added the text. For the Spanish version I used the comili book font which is distributed under the SIL Open Font license, and for the Japanese one I just used the standard font for Kindle. Finally, I put all of the pages together and generated the book in Kindle format using the Kindle Kids’ Book Creator application.

The Japanese version of the book was by far the most succesful, and I got a lot of requests from people who would like to buy it in printed form. I have also read my book (as well as other children books) to children and families in various local events. Seeing children smile and react to a story that you've created really feels amazing.

Conclusions: I had never been good at drawing with a non-realistic style, but since I knew it was essential for the book I had no choice but doing it. I think I managed to create some cute illustrations after all, so that's one lesson I learned: try and do it!. Another lesson I learned was that for the first time, when you still lack of experience, it can be good to just go ahead and draw without a plan as long as you can fix it later. For my next book now I have a bit more experience so I will try to plan the story from the beginning.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

My second diorama: Greyhound

A few months after presenting my first diorama to tamiya's 8th 1/48 scale modellers contest I created another one and presented it to the kiyahobby annual contest kiyacon (キヤコン 2017).

The theme for the 2017 edition of the kiyacon contest was open-top AFVs (armoured fighting vehicles). The first thing I thought when I read "open-top" was: what happens when it rains then?". In my rather short experience as a modeller, I had never seen a rain scene in a diorama. For that reason, I decided to challenge myself and try to model a rainy scene. For this diorama, I chose tamiya's 1/48 Greyhound and used a circular base that I got for 100 yen. The key to achieve this rainy effect was to undertand that colours get darker when wet, and to apply clear varnish overall to get that shinny look.

I created the floor by scratching the surface of a styrene board on which I had traced a cobblestone picture. You can use gimp or photoshop to adapt the perspective of a photo for this purpose. I used a thick needle attached to a pin vice tool.

Next, I applied diluted modeling paste and compound inspired by an article in Satoshi Araki's blog. On top of that I applied a base layer of german grey, and then added details and different colours using a brush. The rails were made using tamiya's H-shaped bar although I think I should have just cut a tamiya's plastic board to make the shape a bit more realistic.

I modified the original figure using tamiya's putty (basic type) so that it looked like it was holding an umbrella. A nice trick is to put a bit of menthol lip balm on your fingers and a cooking sheet so that tamiya's putty doesn't stick to your them. Another trick is to attach a short wire to the shoes, so that you can nail the figure down into the floor.

For the umbrella, I used some wire and masking tape. This was very experimental but for being the first time I think it worked reasonably well.

Conclusions: making the diorama simple was a great idea because I enjoyed every step, the results didn't look overworked and more importantly I made it to the contest's deadline. The contest is really famous in Japan and many senior modellers presented amazing works. Despite me being still a beginner, I actually got a prize in the contest as well!. I think the key for winning that prize was that I tried something different (expressing a rain scene). In my next diorama, I want to try something that hasn't been done yet and be more creative.

Converting inches to centimeters in your head

While reading a book from the USA about woodworking, I felt the need to find an easy way to roughly convert inches to centimeters quickly in my head. As you probably know 1 inch equals 2.54cm. The problem is that it's not easy, at least for mortals like me, to quickly multiply by 2.54 mentally.

So after a few minutes I came up with this formula:
 cm = in*2 + round_down_to_even(in)/2 + 1
For example, let's suppose that we want to convert 13 inches to centimeters in our head. We apply the formula above and we get:
 13*2 + round_down_to_even(13)/2 + 1 = 26 + 12/2 + 1 = 33cm
While the exact value is 33.02 cm, we got pretty close. I found that this formula works reasonably well for the first 50 inches (127cm) where the error averages to about 0.56cm (see the figure). Unfortunately, the accuracy of this formula decreases proportionally to the number of inches. I link here a LibreOffice spreadsheet that I used to calculate the normal distribution for this formula (see the columns aprox2) and compare the results with other similar formulas that I thought up. If you know of formulas that beat up mine, I'd be glad to know them. Please write a comment.