Sunday, May 31, 2009

These shoes rule, these shoes suck!

I have only worn the new shoes for a week as of this writing, so these are only my first impressions.

So far, I have had a lot of fun wearing my VFF KSO's for only a minor amount of pain and inconvenience. As i'm breaking them in (as well as my feet), I have tried to wear them wherever possible. My favorite places to wear them in the second half of my American vacation:

-running up the lawn part of The Gorge amphitheatre
-driving the car (basically barefoot)
-jumping up/down banks near a river

Places that didn't work as well:

-long distance walking on pavement/sidewalk (although it's probably just that i'm not used to it yet)
-airport security
-carrying heavy things in dicey places
-while dancing

In general they work great for me on slopes or places where I need good, lightweight footing. They are not the best idea when carrying or lifting heavy objects in uncontrolled environments; in other words, they would work fine for weight lifting in a gym, but not for lugging around 50lb suitcases through public transit. This is mostly because of the damage 50 lbs can do when landing on a single toe with less than a centimeter of material between luggage and toe.

Unfortunately, the story for TSA is not terribly clear; while I have read reports of TSA screeners waving off the shoes as harmless or not shoes, that was not the assessment I was given at Sea-Tac Airport earier today. I actually went through the scanner with them on, then as I was collecting my bag and laptop another screener got curious about my wierd looking shoes. It wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that I was not wearing socks and I haven't washed my shoes (yes, you can and should wash them) since buying them a week ago.

While dancing, bouncing, raving, or otherwise gyrating, it is unnerving to have no 'bounce' or cushion on your heels, and doing all your ups and downs on the balls of your feet is very tiring. Just as with luggage on public transit, wearing these shoes on a crowded dance floor is not recommended. Especially in the presence of intoxicated or otherwise mentally altered people, playing chance with someone stepping on you toes is not something I would advocate any more than walking through a city sidewalk (or festival campsite!) without any protection.

We'll see in the next few weeks how the shoes (and the wearer) fare up in more normalized everyday use. I also hope to try some short runs in them to see whether it works or not.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How to buy wierd shoes

I've had my eyes on these shoes for quite a few months (hat tip to some reply in an Ask Metafilter post). Unfortunately, they are neither marketed nor sold in Japan, at least according to manufacturer's website. Luckily, Michigan had the most retailers of any state I was planning to visit, so I was feeling lucky about my chances of snagging a pair.

Until I remembered that I was visiting WEST Michigan, where everything is closed early on Saturday and all day on Sunday. Unfortunately, we were about 30 minutes too late to get fitted at The Outpost of Holland, so the next day we drove to the Gazelle Sports location on the east side of Grand Rapids (where stuff is kinda-open on Sundays). I got my size fitted and everything, but they unfortunately only carry the classic model, and I want the KSO (keep stuff out) model.

And now, a brief aside on classic versus KSO models of the FiveFinger shoes. The choice between the two is mostly a matter of taste: ostensibly the KSO, with a covered mesh shoe-top can keep stuff out (that's where the KSO name comes from), but I mainly avoided the classic model because it looks like a ballerina slipper. Judging by how much attention my muted solid black KSO's attract, the constant sideshow afforded by classic model may be just too distracting to get used to.

Still determined to get shoes while in a country where they retail, I returned to the Outpost on my way out of Michigan and they thankfully carried the exact color and model I wanted. Unfortunately they did not carry size 43 (which is probably my real size) so I got a 44 instead. This would be a huge problem for classic model, since there is no strap to keep the shoe from flying off your feet. Fortunately, the slightly too big size has not been too much of a hassle yet, aside from more frequent friction (more on that later).

If you live in America but your nearest store does not carry the exact model that you like, I recommend fitting for a classic model and then ordering online direct from the manufacturer. This way, you can be sure that it will fit fine without extra-tight straps, and Vibram (manufacturers of the shoe) has a generous return and exchange policy should you find that the sizes do not work out to your favor.

If you live in a country without an official retailer, your options are a bit more limited. Over at Birthday Shoes, there is an effort to collect data on VFF shoe size and how it correlates to actual foot length and US/UK "normal" shoe sizes. Also, used pairs of shoes do show up on Ebay from time to time, so that is another option which may work out in different countries.

Above all, make absolutely sure that you have the right size, because it may be difficult to exchange them later. After using them for a few days, they will begin to mold to the shape of your foot, and whoever sold them to you may be hesitant to take them back after they adopt the shape and smell of your feet.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shoes Experience Update: DDR

Last night I attempted a round of DDR while wearing my KSO's. At first, there are a number of things which take some adjusting to. Since there is basically no shoe sole, the timing of the note hits is slightly later. This is due to it taking less time to move my foot and depress the direction arrow. I'm still not sure if this makes the hit timing closer or further away from the actual beats in the music, since I was playing on a new machine. Next week, I'll try again on a machine I am well-acquainted with (the DDR X machine at 仙台駅 Taito Station).

Another change that I noticed (again, may just be machine peculiarities) is that I have to push down fairly hard on the floor buttons in order for them to register in the correct instant. If I step lightly like I normally would while wearing FiveFingers, the pad hits register late or not at all. I think this is just engineering by the pad designers to compensate for people wearing heavy shoes (and slamming the pad way too hard).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Introducing my new shoes

Near the midpoint of my vacation in America, I began to seek out a new and exquisite shoe: the Vibram FiveFingers. Unlike most shoes which help to pad your feet and dampen any vibrations from locomotion, these shoes are a far reach in the other direction. In fact, there is very little difference between these shoes and walking around barefoot, except for the protective rubber sole. Essentially it is a glorified watershoe, with a better rubber sole and articulated toes and heel (a la the toe socks of yesteryear).

Maybe I should say that more bluntly: it looks like a rubber foot. This is the aspect which probably matters the least in the functionality of the shoe, but is most noticed by anyone else. In both America and Japan (even as i'm riding back to Sendai on the Tohoku Shinkansen as I write this), total strangers and friends alike manage to work up the courage to talk to me about my shoes. The little attention whore inside of me just loves all the excitement aimed near the lower half of my body.

The more important aspect of these shoes from a functionality standpoint (pun intended) is that there is no support at all. None, nada, zilch, zero. Neither is there any padding to speak of: while wearing the shoe, I can quite readily tell apart whether i'm walking on concrete, pavement, marble, or a grooved escalator step. This is intentional, and the only thing you are paying for with this shoe is a protective glove around your foot. Things that make barefoot walking dangerous, such as metal scraps, nails, broken glass, and so on are not able to penetrate the rubber sole. Like normal shoes, stepping on a big nail or sharp rock may very well bruise your foot, but at least you won't bleed to death or get an emergency tetanus shot.

Speaking of bruising.. that is what will happen to your heel if you walk heel-toe barefoot. Accordingly, the new wearer of the FiveFingers shoe will need to adjust (and probably unlearn) their ambulating style and gait to be appropriate for barefoot walking. In general, the strategy is to use the ball of your foot as the main impact absorber, since that is how your foot is designed to work in the first place. Walking only on the balls of your feet is basically tiptoe-ing, and is not sustainable for long distances unless you have extremely well-conditioned feet/legs. For a smoother gait, I roll through with all of my toes (its much more productive when your foot is wearing a glove instead of a mitten).

Next.. how does one buy such exotic footwear?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shipping luggage to/from the airport in Japan

UPDATE: added headers, more details on picking up at the airport, and how to find the booths

On my travels involving luggage in Japan, I am acutely reminded just how crowded the country can be (and how big the foreigners are in comparison to everyone else). It is nearly impossible to take any non-carryon luggage in the subway or highway buses, and difficult to carry more than one checked baggage on the Shinkansen. Many people utilize various delivery services which can deliver luggage directly to or from an airport.

For airport delivery, you can both send and receive your luggage at the airport.

Sending Airport to Home (or other destination)

When I fly into Narita International Airport, I eventually work my way through customs, and end up on the first floor arrivals lobby. From here, at the end of the large hallway are the booths of various delivery companies (look for signs indicating delivery companies or 荷物宅配サービス). One of the most well-known companies is Kuroneko Yamato, which has the trademark black-cat-on-yellow logo; I have used this company several times. At the booth, you fill out a little delivery form, decide what time the next day you would like your luggage delivered, hand over 1500-2000 yen per bag, and leave the airport much lighter. For much of Kanto (near Tokyo), same day deliveries are possible for luggage received in the morning; next day delivery is standard to most other areas of Japan (some parts of Hokkaido and islands like Okinawa take longer). Now you can proceed lightly to your destination!

Sending to the Airport

Shipping to the airport is a bit more involved and requires more planning, because the bags must be sent two days prior to departure. In my case, I sent my bags on a Thursday for my Monday flight. Collection is also varied; in general you can call a delivery driver to make a pick up at a specific time and place, or you can take your luggage to a store that deals with the delivery company. For Kuroneko, most Seven-Eleven stores are able to send and receive packages and luggage, along with a smattering of other (usually smaller, independent) stores and shops. The forms can be obtained from participating stores before you hand over money and send the bags, which is helpful if you know the store from which you want to send but are unsure of other details (or want some time to pick apart the kanji on the form).

On the airport end, you pick up your luggage in the departures check-in lobby of the appropriate terminal and wing. After that, you can walk across the floor to your appropriate airline check-in station, and only end up carrying all your bags at once for the 5-10 minutes it takes to traverse the huge departures lobby. Also, you can stuff anything into your bags at this time that you forgot/deferred from shipping; for example, toiletries, おみやげ (souvenirs) that you forgot, or evening out the load between checked and carryon luggage.

I have found this service invaluable, especially if you have more than one piece of luggage or are travelling to the airport by bus. Even with the roughly $16-20 per piece of luggage, it is still cheaper to take an overnight bus and pay for luggage than take the shinkansen. Even with the shinkansen, the lightened burden may make your travels more relaxed and stress-free. After a neverending day of travel and a flight covering a dozen timezones, shelling out a few bills is often a very tempting proposition. Since my flight departed at 10:45, I would be traveling through Tokyo around rush hour; the thought of swimming through the sea of commuters with 100lb of deadweight was enough motivation for me to figure out how to ship my bags to the airport.

Helpful links

Yamato Transport (Kuroneko) - Airport Takkyubin (English)