SMICK.NET | Website of Mike Smick Graphics and Web Developer

New Obsession – The 1904 Worlds Fair

My wife is from Japan. So it makes absolutely no sense that she would fall in love with the World’s Fair. But she did. And then she got me obsessed with it.

worlds-fair-daily-programFor years now, I’ve loved the artwork of past eras. Bioshock was such a great game for me because it took a past era and built a world around the design that I could explore.  When these Worlds Fair books started showing up around the house from the library, I began looking at them.

I don’t have this sense of pride in my town necessarily for making the World’s Fair happen. I have a pride for humanity, in what they can build in a short amount of time.  And there’s also a sadness, because so much of the amazing palaces that once stood just a short car ride from me, were torn down, burned up or simply couldn’t withstand time and environment.

This new obsession combines a strong curiosity on the innovation of the time period, the design, the audacity of it all. I’m not sure many people were ever big thinkers, but when I look at the old photos, I think, would we ever be able to do something like that again? Does anyone get to think so big anymore?

I’ve got more to write here about it, but I’d like to point out a few interesting things.

October 30, 2013 at 11:21 am | inspiration, interesting, Japan, photography | No comment

Summer 2012 tapers off

Summer is nearing an end once again. The weather has gone from absolutely terrible, to extremely  pleasant in a very short time (where I live at least). I don’t like the smells of fall because they always remind me of the dread of winter. But this one is tapering off nice and slowly.

We went to japan for a few weeks. It was a good time as always. Due to the hot summer, the rice harvest began a little early and I was able to help out. Andrew got to see his Great Grandparents and hang with them a few times. We went on overnights and day trips to hotels, the ocean, theme parks and more.

This was the first time I brought my bike with me to ride and the first time I was able to ride and meet new friends on my own. My friends Norio and Hiroshi picked me up several times to take me riding. We rode with some great flatland riders.

September 22, 2012 at 6:57 am | family, Japan | No comment

Darth Vader – straight out of Medieval Japan

Have to thank my wife for this find.

A one-of-a-kind synthesis of awesome you always knew would work. The Darth Vader Samurai armor (yoroi) and helmet (kabuto). Too bad there’s only one of these in the whole worl….Wait did I say rare? I mean on the shelves at Toys R Us in Japan. Far from lifesize, looks to be about 8 inches tall. But this kit would look pretty good on the shelf. Right next to your Freddy Krueger Conquistador!

March 23, 2011 at 12:15 am | interesting, Japan | 1 comment

Japanese movies on NBC’s Hulu

Hulu is pretty cool.  TV and movies on the Internet done fairly well.  I have spent several hours watching episodes of an old favorite, Quantum Leap. Commercials are annoying, repetitive and ineffective, but thankfully less of them are on Hulu per show than broadcast TV.  I wanted to share a few links to Japanese movies on there. Hopefully they stay a while so this post is relevant over a few months. Some shows and episodes are pulled quickly due to copyright or strategy of some kind.

Ashura – A demon hunter searches for a mysterious young woman with magical powers
When the Last Sword is Drawn – a poor swordsman joins an elite band of samurai warriors
Kokoyakyu – High School Baseball Documentary – A national obsession
Pray For Death – Best title ever, terrible movie, Japanese immigrant bullied by gangsters is forced to reveal he is in fact a ninja. (obvious)
Nanking – Feature film about the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. Interesting story-telling convention.

And finally to round it out, a older SNL skit and a newer SNL Digital Short.  I’m not sure which one induces more cringes.

October 15, 2009 at 2:15 am | Japan, media | 1 comment

Had a great time at the 2009 Kansas City Japan Festival

Once again, I was fortunate to participate in the Greater Kansas City Japan Festival. For years, I’ve done a lot of the website and communications materials for the event. This year instead of driving across town, I had to drive across the state to attend it. I enjoyed it immensely because I could reconnect with old friends and colleagues. Our friend Carole Owsley was gracious to let Juri and I stay in her lovely home overnight. It was the perfect place to be. She made the best breakfast we could have ever hoped for. She also treated us to a light dinner and her own Strawberry shortcake, from which we can’t wait to steal the recipe.

My friend Fran Lemery is the Executive Director of the festival. He started getting involved in the Japanese community in Kansas City something like ten years ago when he decided to try to put in a smallish Japanese garden his backyard. As with much of the projects he took on, both his garden and his community participation blew up in a way that few people would consider. I’ve admired his attitude, his generosity and his ability to lead so many people to represent Japanese in the community. I just found out at the festival that he was nominated and will receive a special award from the Ministry of Japan for his cultural efforts for so many years. Absolutely outstanding. I can’t wait to know when I can come in and see him receive it. I’m just so happy he’s the guy I can call any time about anything and having him as a special friend.

I’m in St. Louis now, but I still have these strong ties to Kansas City. I enjoy seeing my good friend Fran there, my old colleagues and getting updates on how things are going. I only got to attend the actual Festival for about three hours out of the entire 11 hour day. Despite that, I got to help out with some A/V issues for the more presentation, and to take some photos and video. Both my favorite things. I’d like to extend to the hardworking groups there in the festival my appreciation to them, it was a great time, and the crowd grew by over ten percent because of Fran and other’s attention to detail and their labor of love.

September 21, 2009 at 4:51 am | inspiration, Japan, nostalgia | No comment

Our last night in Japan

This is the sixth time I’ve been to Japan. This visit has been the longest, nearly two months. I’m a little nervous for some reason the night before the flight. Perhaps the large coffee I made myself, or just jitters for everything to work out ok. But it already has worked out ok. I suppose if my plane goes down in the ocean tomorrow, in my last moments I hope I could remember how great everything has been. We’ve been treated so well. Many outings and terrific meals at home and at various places. There has been a lot of good humor, surprises and interesting conversations. I came here hoping that I would have learned a little more about myself, perhaps came back a changed person. I do feel changed, but I realize now that no visit to another country helps you become the person you want to be. These changes are more involuntary. Nearly too subtle to report or specify, but I can feel them a little bit.

Every other time we have this final night, I always well up with tears at some point. It’s thankfulness you know. The part of me that can’t express properly I internalize and spills out of my eyes I guess. This time I want to hold it together. I’ll be just as thankful, but I want to save it for the plane. We are nearly packed, only a few accessories like this laptop and some trinkets are left to jam into my bag. Tomorrow, I imagine we won’t rush at all being we have a later flight. We’ve done this a few times now, so no real uncertainties.

So what have we done? Well it has been a mix of everything. A lot of mundane activities around the house, which I like. I enjoy spending entire days around the house as a matter of fact. I don’t even mind on some days that Japan is right outside and I don’t even step off the porch. We’ve had many day trips, some for shopping, some purely for scenery. Obsessed with taking pictures, I’ve burned through memory cards and entire camcorder hard disk. I’m happy I haven’t had to copy more than one set of cards and the camcorder because I am out of space on my laptop to backup to. We went to various locations to view cherry blossoms. This was the point of coming this time of year. I went on a run at Camp Zama military base (United States) during their festival. I went on training runs around the neighborhood. I’ve had special moments drinking in the beauty.

Family came over several times and we drove to visit them as well. Recently we went with Grandma and Grandpa to see Mt. Fuji from a secluded lookout point. Juri and I spent a night in a small village of historic build called Shirakawa-go. We went on a picnic bike ride over one of Dad’s long lunches. We played a few putt-putt golf challenges behind his animal hospital. We watched Mom’s favorite concert DVDs of the ultra-popular boy band called Arashi.

Unfortunately, I wasted a lot of downtime too, where I could have been building many new work initiatives. I did work, but I also let go of many proactive work possibilities in exchange for nothing special. On this last day I’d like to be able to say I went down my to-do list, the one that I wrote and rewrote several times while here and did everything on it. I’d like to say that but I can’t. Even if that makes me not bad, but just normal, I’m still regretting it. I did a few things, but not nearly enough. Even though I have a lot of fun working on the design projects I do, I trade that sometimes for letting my ‘Mr. Hyde’ take advantage of time-wasters.

Juri has a fun and unique family here. They appreciated that we spend time with them. They enjoyed even short opportunities to chat and drink tea together. Juri does a fantatic job quickly translating my little quips and jokes into something that works on their end. They are always laughing with us, and that is why we came. As much of a physical burden we must be, I thought that we could bring some happiness with us for them. Winter was long and cold for us and it had been too long. We thought we could bring some variety or some sunshine to the family.

I have a few pictures from the last couple weeks. We are happy for what we’ve been able to take part in. We are thankful to our family here and back home for taking care of us and our things. Stories and humor live on when the moment is over. We look forward to the next chance to come back again. We want it to be an ongoing exchange because it feels right, makes it less sad, and most of all, I haven’t climbed Mt. Fuji yet!

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See The Flickr Slideshow Here

April 21, 2009 at 9:05 am | family, Japan, photography | 1 comment

My New Favorite Pen: Tombow AirPress

My new favorite pen the Tombow AirPress, made in Japan. I picked it up at a bookstore for about 400 Yen ($4.00). They stole my heart by giving it the commercial industrial look, bright orange, rubberized tough design and perhaps most likeable of all, the perfect clip. I know it’s just a pen, who cares. But there is something rewarding about finding something on your own that you’ve always hoped for.  Pens are never my friends. I always break the clips, the plastic snaps from too much pressure. I can clip this Tombow pen to a hardcover book if I want to. It’s configured as a spring so it will cling to your shirt, portfolio or booklet and has a small hole if you wanted to put a lanyard around it or connect a cable to your belt.  The ink flow is also perfect. As good or better than the Fisher Space Pen. I like a fine point because I always write too small and because of that too many pens don’t work for me. They stop up, perhaps due to the way I create friction on the point. The AirPress feature of this pen, I don’t fully understand (packaging in Japanese) but my best guess is contents are under slight pressure.

A couple pics of the best pen you’ll see today. Damn good pen. A great pen worthy of a great man.

April 18, 2009 at 9:03 am | gadgets, Japan, tools, writing | 2 comments

Napping through my first earthquake

I had not as much sleep as I would have liked the night before, and I was getting a little rest on the tatami mat when Juri startled me, “Mike, get up, earthquake.” I sat up a little confused. An earthquake? I didn’t feel anything at all. I think I had just started drifting off. She said “Maybe I’m wrong, it could have been wind. They usually put a notice on TV when this happens.”

Sure enough, a moment went by and then the indicator popped up on their TV. A 4.2 quake registered in Chiba, which is the prefecture where Narita Airport is located. Here in Kanagawa, the shockwave amounted to somewhere in the 3’s. Wow, Juri felt that. Her dad didn’t, and he was standing up in the next room over. Perhaps he was distracted talking to a client. Finally up and awake, I scanned the animal hospital where we were spending the afternoon. I found myself looking for the most sturdy location in the walls and ceiling. “This spot looks good. Wait, no it’s too close to the windows there. I don’t want them to shatter all over me.”

Juri was sensing my calculated concern. I thought about grabbing a lawn chair and just sitting in the middle of the nearest empty field with a pitcher of tea and a magazine. She insisted I not worry, but didn’t give any particular reasons why I shouldn’t. I kept thinking we’d get hit again soon. Perhaps one of the earths plates was just shaking loose and the big one was coming. For a moment I thought what it must be like to live like this. I come from the Midwest where the ground has been pretty dependable.. I felt this sense of impermanence about the world for a moment. I then wondered if anyone here does live in fear every day of quakes, wound up like a spring day and night. I haven’t met anyone like that, but in a world where hundreds or thousands of people become addicted to online gaming and more than that are hypochondriacs, there must be a portion of people absolutely terrified of quakes.

Two years ago, my last visit to Japan, Juri and I prepared ourselves for an earthquake. We took the earthquake safety training simulation at the emergency center in her town. It was actually more just for a sightseeing fun thing to do at the time. The quake simulation created by a machine in the fake kitchen setting was pretty intense as I recall. Of course we laughed and cheered performing all of the quake safety shutoff procedures, but the whole time during that simulation I thought, “God I hope this never actually happens to me.” The shakes were actually intense in the simulation.

June 23, 2007 at 1:45 pm | Japan | No comment

Lunch with Blender 3D user and teacher Tony Mullen (in Japan)

While coming back from our two-week train trip around Japan, Juri and I stopped in Shimokitazawa before heading back to Juri’s parents house. The reason we stopped? Before we left the states, I sent out a cold email to author and instructor Tony Mullen. He wrote an instructional book on my favorite free 3D software Blender. Like a lot of free and open source software, Blender has a large and strong community of users. The strength is based on bettering your skills and sharing knowledge. From this, I just knew that if my email reached Tony, and if he was free, he would likely agree to meet up for lunch. I knew this because I would do the same thing had the roles been reversed.

Lunch with Blender user and author Tony Mullen

Tony met us at the south exit of the train station at Shimokitazawa, a very hip little area of Tokyo. Despite the unfamiliarity, I had plenty of things to talk to him about. We walked down the road to a nice cafe and had lunch. I wasn’t really hungry as much as I was excited to talk. We talked about Blender and the community, about our experience with open source software. We talked about our own jobs and about Japan. I was surprised to hear that Tony teaches Blender as the main program in an Introduction to Computers class. This is the same kind of class where one might typically cover MS Word, Excel and email. His college is Tsuda University, a womens college in Japan. So his students, and those who form his after school blender club are all female! I’ve never actually seen a girl do any 3D graphics in my life, let alone college freshman girls in their first intro computer class modeling and animating characters.

While in Japan, I also read an article that Tony is starting another book on Blender, about particles and physics. Sound complicated? It’s basically how to animate things like falling stars or a character’s head of hair. Also handling how objects can crash together or blow apart. 3D is fairly complicated and any book on Blender is a welcome addition since it doesn’t have the nearly the books and products you can find for 3D Max, Maya, or Lightwave.

It felt great to speak and hear english for a couple hours for a change. Tony is a very intelligent guy and quite hilarious. You can tell he’s got the international street smarts. His sharp wit and humor exist on a higher level certainly because of his experience and learning. It was a pleasure to hang out that afternoon. Even Juri got a little shopping done in the district as well. I had hoped to ask Tony if he had any tips for me when I teach my six hour blender summer class in July. I didn’t really get to that point though. No problem, I have his book to look through and he signed my copy of it too. He said mine was the first one he signed.

Thanks Tony! Hope we keep in touch and meet up again!

In an unrelated note, I thought I would share with my readers what my $7.50 Green Tea shake from the cafe looked like. Don’t let the pic fool you. The glass was only about 4 1/2 inches tall. This food size / price issue is the hardest thing for me to get used to in Japan. But I will say the taste made up for it big time. Those are white chocolate chunks sprinkled on top of the ice cream with a small amount of sweet red beans.

June 15, 2007 at 2:52 am | 3D, computers, design, friends, graphics, Japan | 1 comment

Why having an international marriage is easier now than ever

The other day, my boss said, “Mike I don’t know how you do it, being married to someone from another country, with the language barrier. Communication is hard enough for married people from the same town and background. It has to be tough!”

It’s hard to address that kind of comment or compliment when you’re biting into a burrito on a work lunch. Later, having digested it, the statement I mean, I truly believe it is easier to have a relationship like mine (with someone from another country and culture) than it ever has been in the past. In my case an American mutt in the Midwest, making a life here with a Japanese wife.

You must have that personal time to be who you really are

Personal space can be created quite easily from the coldness of computers and the internet. No matter what size your home his, I think that you can create personal space from having separate computers. It sounds terrible doesn’t it, but it does work. Juri can research her own interests, such as crafts, Japanese news and celebrities and comedy. If you think Youtube and internet videos were just a way to waste time, but don’t provide real value, you are very wrong. It is new to us and many others over the past year and a half that Juri can watch uninterrupted streaming Japanese TV programs in short and long clips. This simple flash video technology gives her her own Japan space. It’s relief from the exhaustion of being someone else all day. She has to play the role of an english speaking teacher in real life, but at home, she can go back to Japan and laugh at Japanese comedians, see popular dramas and of course read blogs or email family and friends in her own language. As I’m writing this, she’s in that space right now, just as if she was 5,000 miles away at home. Twenty years ago, she might be able to acquire a good book collection, or a video cassette library of Japanese movies, but this isn’t the same as connecting to her culture in real time with the Internet. Almost as good as being there.

Finding a group of your own kind to connect with

Finding a support group is easier. Every organized group, including the Japanese societies that exist in any locality have some sort of online presence. It might just be a mention in an article, or a phone listing, but more likely there is a little website for the organization. This means that finding a group of like minded people is easier than ever. You can find people around you with a short search on the web such as “St. Louis” + “Swedish organizations”. You must appreciate how creating your own island of your native people is valuable to a person who is away from their home. In our case, belonging to and volunteering with the Japan-America society, we go to more events and meet more Japanese people in a few months than we would grow to know over a decade, if this was 1960. Fifteen years ago, to find them, we’d have to luckily stumble across a flyer advertising an event that we could go to or meet someone who already knew about it. Now, anyone can subscribe to multiple online calendars getting notices via email of upcoming activities within a cultural group, from festivals, to nights out for beers or a dinner party.

Family Connections

Along with a personal space and time, Juri has the benefit of email, an efficient postal system between the US and Japan, and the ever valuable Internet Relay Chat. Replaced by Yahoo Chat, which was an important tool for the two of us when separated by the Pacific, Skype is now Juri’s tool of choice to see mom and dad weekly or daily. Skype gives a simple high quality audio and decent video chat that her and her mother and father can use for free. It’s common for Juri to fire up the computer at 5:30 in the evening after work and catch her parents online cooking breakfast and ready to say hello before they head to work. Her dad also will log in at his work and chat if time permits well into our dinner time and before bed. During family gatherings when Aunts and Uncles visit, the chat line is open and we can all say hello. To be able to see your family and talk to them through a computer and having that live video is absolutely priceless.

As I mentioned before, it was Yahoo Chat that worked best, but Skype provides a near perfect audio feed, so from being upstairs and eavesdropping, the voices often sound to me like her parents are her visiting the house. Surely 10 years from now, TV screens will be larger and the video feed, beautiful and fast, clear as a home movie. For now, Juri can connect with home, even having the arguments and fights that she normally would have with parents and brother. Trust me, I’ve seen them.

Access to products formerly out of reach

In some ways, it’s unfortunate because it makes hunting for unique gifts harder, but we are exposed to all kinds of cultural artifacts and common items just by visiting certain aisles of a supermarket, or even a Target store these days. You also have the World Market, which 40 years ago, might cater to a completey different group, but now seems to fit your average design conscious citizen looking for a new kitchen set or an exotic hot sauce. We don’t have a China or Asia town where I live, but we still have places we can go. Retailers have found that providing goods from other countries is another way to stand out and to keep shoppers interested. Consumers can tap into new tastes and decorative ideas. People like my wife, are able to see products from their home country and can comment on them whether good or bad. It might seem weird, but if she sees a really bad knockoff Japan product, we can laugh about it and use that experience to learn or reminisce. That poorly crafted knockoff sitting on a store shelf somehow provides value or appreciation of home, bringing home closer for that moment.

These are just the places that might be around town, depending on the area you live. But again with an internet connection, you can access all kinds of niche stores selling the items that you might miss, such as cooking spices, snacks, utensils and wares that you would just have to go on missing if it were 1957. If Juri wants to cook something she’s used to having, most of the items can be found. Probably everything but perhaps the rarer vegetables.

Ever since we met, we’ve had really good communication, so my bosses comment somehow went over my head, as if he was talking about problems other people have. For us, mostly it’s smooth. Whatever magic that is between Juri and I, be it a mixture of the right patience for one another and ourselves, or the simple knowing that we have outlets to be ourselves and little ways to retreat, we are making it work day by day, just like any international couple from the last century would. It’s easier for us I think than it has been for others because of our historical examples we can call up, and hopes toward the future. Come to think about it, the hope may be the real reason. If you can find hope in your life you conquer and live through anything.

May 8, 2007 at 12:31 am | family, interesting, Japan, nostalgia | No comment