A Visit to Tokyo’s Guitar Shops

One of the amp rooms at Big Boss Guitars.

When I travelled to Tokyo, the guitar shops absolutely shocked me.

"You’re a musician," you might say. "All you guys get nerdy around instruments."

Well, those who know me will tell you that I am jaded. I can walk through a Guitar Center with a few hundred bucks to burn and walk out with -- absolutely nothing. I am hard to impress. And my current gear is primo stuff that earns its keep – ESP and Carvin guitars -- amps by Fryette, THD and a custom frankenamp built by an electronics genius friend.

But then, a few minutes’ walk from Jimbocho Station in Tokyo, I find a place called Big Boss Guitars. It climbs five stories into the first few floors of a 20-story (or so) building. It sprawls into an annex.

Inside, I find rarities that I have never seen in the U.S. That’s right, not even in Hollywood on the famed Sunset Strip. Big Boss Guitars destroys the Sunset Strip – even with its Mesa/Boogie, Carvin Guitars and original Guitar Center stores – as a pretender.

From the second I walk in, it’s like 80s metal never died. There’s nary an indication that grunge, indie, shoegaze and various other forms of low-fi droning exist.

You're looking at close to $20,000 worth of heads in this photo. And that's not counting the Mesas that are barely in the frame. I can tell you first-hand, too, that Diezels sound amazing.

What do I see? Where to begin … how about an Emppu Vuorinen signature ESP? This thing doesn’t even exist on the U.S. edition of the ESP website! There’s a used Egnater TOL amplifier, which I rarely even see on eBay, much less in a random guitar store. There’s a BC Rich that looks like it’s chiselled from white basalt. Everywhere I look, a new treat. Every floor holds wonders -- well, except for the acoustic floor.

I wander to the next storefront, and get my mind boggled by more effects pedals than I’ve ever seen in one place. And more amplifiers.

Here’s the downside: The prices are murder. I wonder what my crazy late 80s Charvels would sell for here. My Carvin could probably make me a mint (because it is a magnificent instrument, my own version of Ned Stark’s Ice).

I return home to Phoenix. I haven’t set foot in any guitar shop since Tokyo. And after that, I barely have any reason to.

Local Media Finally Covers Death of Mountain Biker

The Arizona Republic followed the story I wrote about the second death this year at McDowell Mountain Regional Park.

I love this quote:

“We are not suspecting foul play,” sheriff’s spokesman Brandon Jones said. “We are not sure what caused it, but we are not done investigating.”

(Facepalm) Yes. Offing someone by staged bike accident is definitely a high-percentage tactic.

I hope the Republic at least has enough sense to be embarrassed that, if not for a guy freelancing in his spare time, its reporters wouldn’t know about two deaths in its market.

If you feel like reading it, here’s a link.

Make sure you note the publication dates.

Man Dies in Second Mountain Bike Fatality of 2012

This is what you usually get from a ride at McDowell – big smiles and good times. Stay safe out there, everyone.

A mountain biker died during a rider at McDowell Mountain Regional Park Saturday. That’s the second mountain bike fatality at my favorite park in the last six weeks.

I have a story on Examiner.com with more details. That’s what you want to read for the "just the facts" info. Frankly, the story is missing the rider’s identity. I could press harder – but in this case, that’s not what’s important about the situation.

My motivation for writing the Examiner story was two-fold: First, so other riders can remember the basics of how to be prepared (see below). Second, I hope it’s a wake-up to the abject performance of the so-called outdoor writer at The Arizona Republic. Every hiker who skins a knee on Camelback Mountain warrants a story, but the Republic can’t be arsed about anything beyond sight of the newsroom.

But here on my own site – I just have a few messages for my mountain bike brethren. There are a few points I want us all to take away from the deaths of Ron Cadiente and the as-yet unnamed out-of-town visitor.

Be Prepared

If you mountain bike without a helmet, water, tools, a properly maintained bike and a cell phone -- You.Are.Not.Prepared. Don’t leave home without any of these. And think about a sports drink and some snacks, especially as the weather gets hotter. I can’t believe I still need to tell anyone to wear a helmet. It boggles my mind that anyone would mountain bike without a helmet – there is just no valid reason for it.

Don’t Do Anything Stupid

If you can’t pass someone safely, don’t pass them at all. Wait. I don’t care if you’re a Cat 1 or pro mountain bike racer (in fact, they tend to ride safer than Cat 3’s front-of-the-pack riders), finishing a few seconds earlier is not worth your safety or that of your fellow riders. Your sponsors or the bike shop who sponsors your team certainly agrees. And yield the trail whenever you can to riders headed the opposite direction. I notice a lot of people like to ride Pemberton counter-clockwise these days. Fine. Let’s all be good to each other and allow some room.

Control Yourself

This means to things: Keep your speed reasonable and watch where you want to go. I know speed is fun – but the there’s a fine line you’ll cross when the speed gets too much for your skill or the trail conditions -- and it shrinks your margin of error. And that’s not fun.

Now, onto "where you want to go". Most experienced riders instinctively know that your bike will go wherever your eyes do. Call it "target fixation" or whatever, but it’s true. So look at the path around the obstacles before you. See the smooth line and fix a firm but loose gaze on it. It sounds easy, and it is – but it’s also essential for keeping your mountain bike in control.

You are Cool, Caring People

Mountain bikers are good people. The Internet can bring out the worst in people. But read the very first reports of Ron’s death on MTBR. And then witness the support as people set up a low-key but meaningful way to raise funds to honor his memory. The response makes me more than a little proud to be a mountain biker. And I regret not doing more to participate. If there’s a second-annual ride for Ron, I’ll get behind it on this site and I’ll be there to ride.

Do any of you other riders out there have any observations about what we can take away from these unfortunate losses?

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Arizona Pols: Courting the Electorate Via Spam

No, this is NOT the District 9 I live in!

For Arizona political hopefuls like Martin Sepulveda, kissing babies and shaking hands is passe. The power of the Internet and the telephone allow them to spread their names without effort.

And, too often, without consent.

If a guy like ex-Chandler city council member Martin Sepulveda, who hopes to win the Ninth Congressional District seat, knocks at my door -- it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so if he robo-calls to a handy list of phone numbers.

Or if he buys my e-mail address and spams my inbox. On the other hand, it says a lot about a congressional contender’s character when he sends you a grammatically challenged, hyperbolic screed full of some of the most egregious abuse of upper-case letters on record (Note to Mr. Sepulveda – hire a decent copywriter before it’s too late. And please, be smart enough not to throw the word "tyranny" around without regard for its meaning.).

It also sends other messages that voters shouldn’t overlook: "My politicking trumps your privacy. I play dirty. I will do anything to take and hold a seat."

As if Arizona politics isn’t already crawling with that sort of behavior.

This post is my vehicle to shed light on people like Sepulveda, my scarlet "S" (yes, as in SPAMMER) that will show who sends unsolicited campaign messages to an electorate that didn’t consent. This list is non-partisan and open to submissions (so if you get one that I haven’t listed, forward it to me at wanderingjustin at hotmail dot com).

If you are a politician and your name is on this list, fear not. You can win your way off. Just e-mail a signed denouncement of the use of unsolicited e-mails and robocalls for political campaigning, along with your pledge not to use such tactics. I will strike your name through on this list, and post your denouncement (with signature redacted). That’s it.

Here’s where the list starts:

Martin Sepulveda – Running for Arizona CD9 seat

New Zealand – Up and Coming Craft Beer Destination

Outdoor adventure and craft brew go hand-in-hand ... but wait until after for the brew, right?

During my 2009 visit, New Zealand had everything needed to be a great travel destination for craft beer fans: a do-it-yourself attitude, a friendly vibe and the perfect climate to grow untold tons of tasty hops. But I was too early – the craft beer craze hadn’t kindled for Kiwis.

Today, though, I can’t log in to Twitter without hearing about a new craft brewery popping up in Rotorua or Queenstown. Some are just ramping up and earning attention, like Renaissance Brewing Company: I tried its Stonecutter Scotch Ale and 2009 MPA Double IPA at my local brew store, and both were spectacular. Pay attention to what I say, curious beer connoisseur: Book a ticket for New Zealand. Here’s why:

Home-Grown Hops

If you make a product with ingredients directly from the source, you get good results. It stands to reason, then, that the hops I mentioned will produce delicious brews. Just south of Nelson, you’ll see expanses of hops that will send IPA lovers into a state of bliss. That MPA I mentioned earlier? Its Rakau hops infused the brew with a distinct note of apple I’ve tasted in no other hop.

And I can only wonder what the folks at Monkey Wizard (I don’t have to tell you that’s an awesome name, right?) craft brewery are up to. I passed the brewery twice, on my way to and from Abel Tasman National Park – each time I got forlorn that it wasn’t open, and I couldn’t stop the bus even if it was. So do me a favor: Go there and tell me how awesome it is.

Outdoor Adventures of All Kinds

Leave it to Kiwis to turn a cargo plane into hotel rooms.

Craft beer is the pepperoni on the gooey pizza of outdoor activities. Mountain biking, hiking, ice climbing, bungee jumping -- they’re best re-lived over pints. Everywhere you travel in New Zealand, somewhere is advertising some sort of activity straight out of a Red Bull commercial. I barely scratched the surface with Zorbing, street luge and glacier hiking.

My mountain biker nature is still bitter that I failed to try the Schweeb. I still don’t know why I did that. Maybe it was a "bizarre activity overload." Here’s another chance for you to learn from my mistakes: Try everything you can, and find one of these great new craft breweries to relive the rush.

Crazy, Cool and Comfortable

For two nights in Waitomo, I slept in a cargo plane turned into two hotel suites. Other rooms were made from old boxcars and a yacht. While none of my other NZ accommodations were quite as creative, all were reasonably priced and very homey. For instance, every hotel we stayed at had a kitchenette. That means a great place to store any craft beer you score at the local market. And kitchenettes are nice for long trips because it’s easy to get tired of dining out. It’s also fun to try the awesome ingredients from the many farmers markets (Produce and meat in New Zealand are first-rate).

This post is sponsored by Jason’s Travel Media. With extensive online booking for both accommodation and activities, Jason’s is not only a fantastic travel information resource but also a one-stop shop for any travelers, domestic or international.

Grounded Airliners at Pinal Air Park – Random Photos

A Delta 747's huge tail finds a spectacular backdrop in Picacho Peak.

For a flying and travel enthusiast, it’s surreal to see hundreds of acres of grounded airliners. It’s a sad sight for many reasons.

Before I get into that, why are these airliners baking under the Arizona desert sun? Well, they’re parked at Pinal Air Park because they’re surplus to their owners’ needs. Some are just too old to be useful – it’s a 747-400 world, and most of these are 1- and 200-models. So they wind up here until they get pressed back into service … or until they get recycled.

Two more 747s languish at Pinal Air Park.

I see these old airliners and think of where they have gone. They’ve probably taken people all over the world … and back in a time where the world may have seemed bigger and more mysterious. You couldn’t take a peak at Reykjavik on Google Earth, or find a new friend in Busan through Facebook.

And I also see waste. Many of these will never go back into service. And we know there are many clever ways to recycle airliners. Turn ’em into hostels, use them for home construction, turn them into bars … whatever. A lot of effort when in to them. Surely they can do more than just get turns into a new generation of receptacles for processed food.

A 747-200 and a DC-10 at Pinal Air Park

My Switch Vision sunglasses giveaway is still going on! Competition is heating up, with hikers and mountain bikers pitching in some great stories about the best thing they’ve ever found on a trail. Best story wins! Check this blog post  for the rules. Deadline is March 30, 2012.

Travel in Russia – Thoughts from a Cold War Kid

6582 - Moscow - Red Square
When I was 12, I never would've imagined I could visit Red Square. Which made it intriguing ...

There’s something about travel in Russia that appeals to me. I’m convinced it’s because I’m a late Cold War Kid.

One of my earliest memories is the Miracle on Ice – the dramatic U.S. hockey victory over the Soviet Union. I grew up with movies like Red Dawn. I remember wondering when we’d have a nuclear war. The Soviet Union was mysterious, dangerous, hostile. Which made it fascinating.

Sure enough, the Soviet Union collapsed. The once-feared hammer and sickle is clever marketing for selling soda. There are groups of American Airsoft players who relish the role of being Soviet soldiers, right down to accurate uniforms and gas masks.

And now … I can go there!

A former colleague already has. Ryan is now in Russia for a semester of study. He writes about it in his RussianRamblings blog, and I look forward to having him drop in here to share thoughts and advice. Be sure to check out his post about the banya. Way to step into the culture, Ryan!

This is pretty awesome for Ryan, and it sounds like he’ll make the most of the experience.

In my case, a trip to Russia will likely be part of something larger. I have visions of hitting the Scandinavian and Nordic countries in addition to Russia. This is all just starting to take shape in my head. But it could be way awesome – multiple countries and some trail travel are always fun.

My Switch Vision sunglasses giveaway is still going on! Competition is heating up, with hikers and mountain bikers pitching in some great stories about the best thing they’ve ever found on a trail. Best story wins! Check this blog post  for the rules. Deadline is March 30, 2012.

Air Miles, Student Travelers and More: Ideas for Airlines

If any airline can make flying cool again, it’s V Australia – it’s all about destinations, image and cultivating young travelers.

It’s time for a smart airline to cultivate tomorrow’s frequent fliers: teenagers and students.

My niece, Emily, recently turned 16. My wife and I want to get her a batch of frequent flier miles as soon as her parents get her an account with her preferred airline (that’s a not so subtle hint to my brother, Erich). The last time I visited Emily, she said she’d like to visit Australia. Right there, I had the idea in my head: Get her some air miles. That’s been easier to say than to do – and airlines are missing a major opportunity.

How Airlines Can Step Up

First off, offer deals for student flights. Maybe even tie it into an incentive based on grades or scholarships. Second, offer a promotion that encourages parents to open air miles accounts for their kids. Give a slight break on the cost of the miles, and throw in some sort of cool extra. Like what? Maybe a discount card good at hostels world-wide. Maybe a single-use day pass to an airline lounge. Maybe a tour of the airline’s hub operation to see what it’s like to work at an airline. Whatever it is, make it functional or creative – both, if possible. Show student travelers that they’re important – now and in the future.

Make Flying Cool Again

Airlines and their marketers forget something: that student travelers are blasé about the experience of flying. They’ve grown up in a world where people think flights are stressful, inconvenient glorified bus rides. The adults around them are indifferent to how great it is to fly across the country at 35,000 feet.

That’s not the way I grew up. Flying was cool. I looked forward to the flight just as much as the destination. Any forward-thinking airline can give this back to a new generation of fliers. They’ll need some help from an older generation of fliers, but it can work. It could build loyalty through air miles and just making young travelers feel welcome.

Give student travelers are a chance to have dinner in Chicago and then wake up to breakfast a few hours away from Sydney, and you’ll have them hooked for life.

Got Any Ideas?

Let me put the question to teens and their parents: What sort of "Welcome to Travel" frequent flier offer would get student travelers excited? What besides air miles would help?

This post is sponsored by Student Flights, providers of student travel, cheap international flights, cheap hotels, round the world flights and more.

End of the “Ask the Pilot” Bad for Travel Industry and Readers

From exotic destinations to behind-the-scenes info, Patrick Smith and "Ask the Pilot" entertain and inform.

[Editor’s Note 06/11/12: It appears that a hacker busted into Patrick Smith’s “AskthePilot.com” site. I will keep an eye on the situation. For now, it might be best to avoid it just in case any nasty malware lives in the hacked site.

UPDATE 6/12/12: It looks like Patrick has booted the hacker from his site and is working to restore normal service.

UPDATE 7/25/12 – Looks like Ask The Pilot is off the ground. Congrats, Patrick, and good luck!]

If there’s one thing the travel industry doesn’t need, it’s one less reasonable, intelligent voice.

But that’s what we’ll all have if Salon.com really does kill the long-running Ask the Pilot column. Patrick Smith, a 757/767 first officer, entertains and informs like few other aviators every time he publishes a new post.

Smith debunks myths. He thinks aloud about dismal destinations. He explains what really happens behind the scenes. He proves his enthusiasm for his lift aloft. He rakes the Transportation Security Theater Administration over the coals early and often.

Not good enough for Salon.com, apparently. Several readers have said that Smith has informed them of the column’s imminent demise. Since he hasn’t announced it himself, it makes me wonder if a strong enough Internet response can right the ship.

If not, maybe a better publication will lure Smith to continue. I never read Salon.com before discovering Ask the Pilot. I probably won’t should he depart; I rarely see anything on Salon that I can’t get elsewhere.

Every travel agent, airline and just about anyone in the travel industry should rise in Smith’s favor. His reasonable discourses takes fear out of flying, for those that need it. It encourages curiosity and reminds us how cool it is that we can afford to fly all over the world. He’s no travel industry apologist – he takes the industry to task, when warranted.

Ask the Pilot is exactly what the travel industry needs – to inform travelers and to improve itself. If the column does come to an end, we won’t be better for it.

The semi-good news: You can still visit Patrick Smith at his Ask the Pilot website. Let’s hope his words land in a place where they’ll be well-read.

And if you’re eager for more writing from a pilot, check out Rand Peck: A Life Aloft.

Fiji Travel – Find Your South Pacific Island Adventure

Nadi is where your Fiji travel adventure starts. (By Henning Blatt)

Fiji has always seemed like a relaxing place to me – a South Pacific honeymoon travel destination with sparkling waters, all-inclusive resorts, couples massage.

Sure, Fiji is all that. But there’s an adventurous side to Fiji holidays.

Hiking for Dinosaurs in Koroyanitu National Heritage Park

Just ask Kayla, who calls her visit to the mountains in Koroyanitu National Heritage Park a "Jurassic Park" adventure. Judging from the photos, I can’t disagree. The green foliage is that stunning hue that electrifies my eyeballs – but hey, I’ve lived in a desert for 30 years. So what’s in the park? Epic hiking trails, waterfalls, low-lying clouds that cling to the mountain tops. That sounds alright to me! Visitors say it’s a great break from the beach -- in other words, a chance to get under some forest and cloud cover when you’ve had enough South Pacific sun for awhile. The only thing you’ll miss is a real dinosaur.

Hit the Rapids

Whitewater rafting is another Fiji travel highlight. We’re not talking about massive rapids that threaten to capsize you at every bend. But you’ll see fern grottoes, exotic birds and that feeling like you’ve turned back in time. For me, that’s one of the most valuable parts of a good adventure – just being away from the crush of crowds and feeling like you’re exploring. Sure, I know you’re not. But it’s still nice to let the imagination run.

Cave in for the Kava

I can’t write about Fiji travel without thinking about kava. Never heard of it? It’s a plant related to the pepper, and it’s prepared as a drink with some serious potency. I’ve heard about everything from a mildly numb tongue to full-blown hallucinations. You might want to read J. Maarten Troost’s "Getting Stoned With Savages" to get an idea of what it might taste and felel like. He certainly did get his fill of kava while in the South Pacific! It doesn’t sound tasty – but it must be a great way to produce a nearly unbeatable travel story while experiencing the true Fiji culture.

Get There!

Chances are your Fiji travel will start with a flight into Nadi International Airport. You can count on Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, Korean Air, JetStar and Virgin Australia to get you to the South Pacific from some part of the globe. Fiji is a pretty easy destination to reach from Australia or New Zealand. If you’re from the U.S. like me, you just might have to drop into Sydney or Auckland before reaching Fiji (hint: You can turn that into a fun layover),

This post is sponsored by AllFiji.com.au. As part of a network travel blogs and sites, All Fiji helps network connects users Australia-wide with the travel information they are looking for. It’s a great source for Fiji travel information.

6 Horrible Things People do to Mountain Bikes

Pink streamers on a fast bike equals funny.

Last season, I got a good laugh out of a fit, fast racer with pink streamers on the handlebars of her tricked-out mountain bike. I loved the "don’t take me too seriously" humor. The streamers were hysterical … but I’ve seen many other people perform perverse acts on perfectly nice bikes – all by fitting them with ill-advised accessories. Here’s a roundup of the six most horrible things you can put on your mountain bike. (And when you’re done laughing, check out 3 Awesome Things People do to Their Mountain Bikes.)

A Kickstand

Kickstands have their place: on beach cruisers, commuting bikes and kids’ bikes. They don’t belong on a seriously sweet trail bike. First, it’s dangerous – with all the jarring of off-road riding, the kickstand will never stay in place. Second, you should be riding way too much to need a kickstand. If you want a way to get to the local coffeehouse, get the right bike so you don’t have to desecrate a real off-road machine.

Slick Tires

Smooth tires are great. They let you pedal over pavement with a lot less resistance, letting you go faster. Notice how I said "over pavement"? That means smooth tires belong on bikes meant for riding in their milieu. Why buy a mountain bike and put slick tires on it? The most egregious example I’ve seen recently was a Santa Cruz Blur with a full XT group all dressed up for road riding. I actually felt sorry for that poor bike.

Flat Pedals

There’s something sad about a off-road racing machine with platform pedals. I can understand a bit of newbie fear factor when getting into mountain biking. But if you can afford a $4,000 bike and are willing to spend that much cash, you’d better already know what’s best for your bike. And platform pedals are not it. I suppose I’ll cut downhillers some slack – but nobody else!

A Gas-Powered Motor

Nothing says "I’ve had one DUI too many" like retro-fitting a gas engine to your bicycle. This is already bad when the bike in question is an ugly POS. But it becomes an epic travesty when said putting engine clings to the side of a decent bike.

A Pump – On the Wrong Side

Frame-mounted pumps are great – they’re always around when you need them. I really like the kind with a bracket under the water bottle cage on the downtube. But obey this one rule: Make sure you mount the bracket so it holds the pump on the non-drive side. In other words, the side that doesn’t include the cranks. You wouldn’t want some off-road shaking and shuddering to knock the pump loose and into the chainrings.

BMX-Style Handlebars

Some grizzled, mulleted old ex-1970s BMX racers love to combine the current reality of mountain bikes with the BMX looks of their youth. The result? An abominable collision of styles – a horribly upswept handlebar desecrating a mountain bike. Combine this with the gas motor, and you’ll be the ultimate two-wheeled hillbilly.