Riding the rails with AirPods Pro 2

The original AirPods were a godsend for morning rush hour commuting on the super crowded Yamanote line in Tokyo. The sound quality was not all that different from the wired EarPods that came with iPhone, but they were wireless and that was a game changer. There were countless times when my EarPods cable would catch on a woman’s bag squeezing past in a rush for the car doors, with EarPods and iPhone suddenly ripped out of my ears and pocket, either falling to the floor, or most embarrassing of all, trailing behind a running person while I scrambled to catch them. AirPods eliminated that problem and physical cable noises too, more than enough to put up with the familiar EarPod issues of not staying in the ear so well, or cleaning ear wax buildup on the inside mesh.

Then came AirPods Pro and the magic of noise cancellation, transparency mode and earphones that fit snuggly, so comfortable I’d forget I was wearing them. AirPods Pro 1 were a perfect companion for riding the rails. The noise cancellation was good enough to filter most of the rail and station noise for all but the most extreme cases, such as JR Shinjuku platforms with multiple busy train lines, and loud announcements that have gotten much louder since AirPods Pro arrived as more and more people use…noise cancelling earphones. JR East has compensated by cranking train announcement volumes everywhere but especially so for platforms.

There is also the COVID effect which mandates partially open train car windows for COVID killing fresh air circulation. Not all windows are opened and only a bit, 10 cm or so, usually one window on each side between the doors. But even that little opening is extremely loud when a train goes underground or through underpasses. Older cars that run on the Tokyu Ikegami line are also not soundproofed like the modern Yamanote E235 trains. COVID era train commuting is a very challenging sound environment for AirPods Pro.

AirPods Pro 2: the best AirPods for COVID era train commuting
I’m happy to report that AirPods Pro 2 are a great improvement over the original AirPods Pro for rush hour train commuting in the COVID era. Here is my quick AirPods Pro 2 take from riding the rails everyday:

Audio Performance
With so many AirPods Pro 2 reviews out there, there is not much to add except to say the audio performance enhancement is as real as they say, the soundscape experience is much more immersive. My first impression grows stronger every day: if you like Dolby Atmos spatial audio mixes, these are the AirPods to have.

Noise cancellation
Apple’s claim of 2x noise cancellation over AirPods Pro 1st generation sounds about right. Switch point clatter, underpass roar, tunnel transit with open windows, extra loud platform announcements and more, are quiet but discernible background sounds instead of music killing sound tsunamis. You can even listen to music inside a pachinko parlor, the ultimate sound tsunami. Not that you would want to that, but with AirPods Pro 2 noise cancellation, you can.

Adaptive Transparency
Transparency mode is one of the killer features of AirPods Pro 1. The real time audio of transparency mode is on a level that other earphone makers have yet to match. How do you beat a hard to beat feature? By making it so natural you forget that you’re wearing them. 2nd generation transparency is much less tinny than the original. Everything sounds more natural, I’m not conscious of my voice like I was with the 1st generation, I feel like I’m having a normal conversation without earphones. Because it’s not flashy, the new ‘Adaptive’ feature is hard to pin down, but there’s a perfect way to test it. Stand outside a pachinko parlor near the entrance and wait for someone to go through the door. The resulting sound tsunami that always overwhelms 1st generation transparency is handled by adaptive transparency with ease, it doesn’t overwhelm your ears.

Touch control
AirPods was a huge improvement over EarPods in every way except one: the volume/playback control buttons. Listening to music in a packed train has special challenges. There isn’t always enough space to hold iPhone in one hand and a strap or pole in another. I always put my iPhone in my pack before getting on. Apple Watch isn’t a reliable solution either. Double clicking to bring up the player app and then rotate the knob to adjust volume is great in theory, but the reality is a pain point: not enough room to maneuver, buggy WatchOS that doesn’t change the volume, etc. AirPods Pro 2 touch controls are finally complete. They are easy to use and use discreetly. That is huge.

All aboard
AirPods Pro 1 were easily my favorite piece of Apple hardware these past few years. I got more day to day enjoyment than anything else. For me AirPod Pros 2 are a wonderful upgrade, not only for the new features and enhanced performance, but also for bringing the Dolby Atmos spatial audio experience into focus. I finally ‘get it’. We are still at the very beginning of the spatial audio era, but with AirPods Pro 2, I look forward to exploring new soundscapes yet to come. To enjoy a fully customized AirPods Pro 2 listening experience, make sure you dig into all the options, they make a big difference. Have fun.

Stolen Buddhas

The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.

He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.

An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.

“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.

The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.

In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.

Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.

Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.

But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”

“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.

The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.

He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.

Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.

Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.

The Edo era Bodhisattva statue holding the moon stolen from Ryuhonji temple

Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”

THE心霊写真

One of the joys of Japanese summer is ghost stories, a tradition that dates back to the Edo when the official holiday of Tanabata (seventh day of the seventh lunar calendar month) flowed naturally into Obon season (13~15 of the seventh month) immediately following it, with ghost story tellers and ‘house of horror’ festival attractions popular staples of the day. Nothing like a good chilling scarel to cool down on a hot summer evening.

The old Edo tradition is alive and well today with a raft of Japanese ‘Kaidan’ YouTuber ghost~strange~believe it or not story tellers…most of it boring though occasionally interesting enough to keep watching. When I first came to Japan, August was still a fun month for making vacation plans and watching “THE心霊写真” (The Ghost Pictures) special annual broadcast (TBS I think). 

There have been many incarnations of the basic ghost picture program concept. The early versions (said to have started around the 1973 oil crisis) had a host who showed the pictures and a panel of guest stars who provided entertaining commentary. Some 50 years later you still this on Japanese TV which demonstrates how little things have changed, and how unimaginative TV producers are.

People would send in their ghost pictures for free coupons and stuff and resulting ghost picture boom was big enough where magazine and books would feature ‘how to’ instructions how to fake ghost pictures…remember this was film, paper and darkroom age. Fake or not, a smartly edited collection can be great entertainment and I’ve always thought THE心霊写真 was the best of the lot.

First of all, the ‘THE’. THE is an integral, nay essential, part of of the program title, a sly insider nod that this is entertainment product. But the program itself is anything but flashy, it’s almost minimal with calm voice over narration, ken burns pan and zoom effect that slowly focuses on the ghosty part of the picture with unsettling looping ‘dark ambient’ sounds that would comfortably fit on Brian Eno’s On Land.

The producers cleverly divined the inner workings of the greatest special effects machine of all: the human imagination. Suggestion is way more powerful, and scary, than the actual so called horror, of seeing a ghost. Take some well chosen photos, add some dark ambient background sound, and well written low key narration that conveys a story scenario without a hint of guile. I don’t know who the narrator was for the series but he was a perfect fit, gently leading the audience to the point they entertain the possibility of the impossible.

There’s also the matter of factness of the various ghost types that have no English equivalent: “地縛霊” (spirit tied to a certain location), 浮遊霊 (spirit who travels around, unaware they are dead), 先祖霊/守護霊 (ancestor or guardian spirit), and scariest of all 生き霊 (spirit of living person who, unconsciously though jealousy or hate, becomes attached to another person). Any suggested course of action is equally matter of fact, usually getting a Harai (Shinto) or Kito (Shinto or Buddhist).

The coarse English vocab often used for either is the extremely negative ‘exorcism’ which completely misses the mark. Harai is a ritual for removing any unlucky thing or misfortune is in your life, while Kito is a blessing ritual that simply purifies a person or an object, like standing under a cleansing waterfall. People who have seen ghosts, the ones I know anyway, say it’s like seeing and talking to a real person, in other words…boring.

Foreign reporting takes of Japan as Japanese cuisine

Here’s a fun game for long term gaijin residents of Japan. We all know the Japan portrayed in foreign news reportage and stink tank ‘Japanese expert’ analysts, rarely, if ever, matches the Japan we live in. We also know that ‘Japanese food’ in restaurants outside of Japan rarely matches what you actually eat here. What if we reposition foreign news outlet Japan coverage as Japanese cuisine? It might look something like…

CNN: American McDonalds’s is Japanese food, end of story.
NYT: 24/7 Benihana flying cutlery delusional paranoia, every paring knife a deadly Samurai sword ready to harm Korea and China, a world menace that must be contained.
WAPO: There is no such thing as Japanese food, everything originated in Korea.
Guardian: The UK freed Japanese food from its oppressive anti-foreign Japanese origins by fusing it with forward thinking Asian food cultures, and now owns the copyrights.

All entry suggestions welcome😁

無敵な人

There is a internet slang Japanese expression “無敵な人” loosely explained as “a person who has no hesitation in committing crimes because they have nothing to lose socially”. There is also another very convenient expression “当たり屋” which refers to a person who causes an accident or incident for personal gain. Most people might think ‘trouble maker’ would do here, but trouble maker doesn’t capture the coldly calculated premeditation aspect of the Japanese expressions.

Both of these were on display during a recent platform incident at JR Shibuya station Yamanote line during the evening rush when trains arrive every 4 minutes. For reference Shibuya has over 700,000 people using it every day and does not yet have platform doors as the station is being slowly rebuilt in sections.

The ‘victim’ in this case was a man who dropped his wallet (which he claimed contained ¥40,000 that might ‘blow away’) and asked the station attendants to retrieve it with the magic hands that stations have on hand for such incidents. As transit YouTuber, and former station attendant, Wataru Watanuki explains in his video about the incident, a station attendant would have less than 3 minutes for a retrieval attempt before having to clear out before the next train. Attendants also have a rush hour to take care of. So after waiting for a while with the station attendants standing next to him, the ‘victim’ reached over and pushed the emergency button.

The emergency button is for emergencies, like when somebody falls on the tracks or the tracks are obstructed, basically any condition that might cause an accident. This was clearly not the case. Pressing the station platform emergency button also stops all trains on the Yamanote line. Clearly the ‘victim’ thought doing this would get him his wallet back without having to wait. He also hit video record on his smartphone to cleanly capture the astonished and now irate station attendants who tasked him about pressing the emergency button. Naturally the encounter was posted on social media and created a news event, I guess because the media thinks everybody needs the distraction.

As this things die quickly and tend to disappear from the web unexpectedly, the encounter clearly sounds premeditated as if the poster knew exactly how to goad the station attendant all while obnoxiously playing innocent victim. As Wataru Watanuki explains from personal experience, station attendants are there to ensure that train operation is safe and smooth, that is their job, not babysitting trouble makers. Stations like Shibuya are also notoriously difficult jobs because of ‘無敵な人’. A station attendant who posts anonymously as ‘On the job truths from a working station attendant’ added that JR East isn’t helping anybody when they don’t support front line employees who keep things safe.

But there is an aspect people might not be aware of, a transit user witnessed the poster dangerously attempting to retrieve his wallet on his own several times before pressing the emergency button, all while being warned by the station attendants to stand clear. The tweet said: “Completely understand why the station attendant yelled…poor thing, he ended up looking the bad one.”

That’s the problem with social media, it’s a virtual paradise for all kinds of hit and run 無敵な人. Unfortunately I think we’re going to experience a lot more of them in the years to come.