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Japan trip

First trip in 3 years

I went to Japan from March 7 to 19, and had a great time! I've finally written about it, as well as added text to my Japan photo album.

(If you want to see the comments I added to the photos (about 90% of them), click the "i" icon in the top-right corner of the photos).

The trip was officially so that I could attend the AsiaBSDCon 2018 conference as a Tarsnap employee with my boss Colin, although I extended the 2-day conference into 12 days in Japan.

Day 0

The flight went very well -- I was upgraded from premium economy to business class! This was a 787 plane, so that meant incredible luxury: the seat could lie down completely flat.

As soon as we stepped out from customs at Narita, a TV news team asked to interview us. We think it was "Youは何しに日本へ?" ("why did you come to Japan?"). Since I was well-rested, I agreed. There was 1 interviewer, 1 cameraman, and 1 translator. I spoke in Japanese whenever possible... maybe half the time I could answer the question without waiting for the translator. Granted, these were very basic questions: How long are you visiting Japan? What will you see? etc.

After the usual airport errands (getting a data SIM card and transit passes), we travelled by train to my boss' hotel in Tokyo (close to Ichigaya station). Unfortunately there were no vacancies there when I was booking my hotels... although I suspect that there actually were spaces available, but they'd been reserved by the conference and I didn't realize that I could have booked through them.

Anyway, after checking in (in Japanese) my boss into his hotel, I set off towards my hotel. I knew it was roughly east-north-east from my current position, and the area was bounded by a canal on the west and north, and a major street on the east. So even though my phone's GPS hadn't figured out my position, I faced east and started walking. What could go wrong?

Well, apparently I was facing south, not east -- The only direction that wasn't bounded by an obvious "you've gone too far" landmark. I realized something was wrong when I reached Kojimachi station, which wasn't on my printed-out map at all!

(Aside: google maps won't download maps for Japan due to some kind of contractual issue, and my boss had the data SIM card, not me.)

So I stopped at a convenience store and asked for directions back to Ichigaya station. 15 minutes after asking for directions, I was back at my starting place, and a further 15 minutes later I arrived at my hotel. 45 minutes of walking around carrying my suitcase (because I didn't want to annoy people around me with the noise of the wheels) wasn't exactly how I planned on spending my first night in Tokyo. But hey, I've been meaning to improve my arm strength!

Part 1: Tokyo

Day 1

For breakfast at 4am, I got my typical Japanese meal: convenience store sandwiches, a diet coke, and a doughnut-type baked good. Melonpan (basically bread + sugar, with a criss-cross pattern on top) is a particular favourite.

(I stopped drinking diet coke two years ago, and stopped eating sugar a year ago. But I figured that since I was on vacation, it was ok. Also, it was somewhat nostalgic!)

((Yes, food is a problem for me in Japan. I'm vegetarian, and that's not common over there. I mean, in BC over 10% of the population is vegetarian or vegan, so almost every restaurant will have at least one vegetarian dish. That's not the case in Japan!))

Later, I walked to Colin's hotel, then we walked to the conference venue, then I walked to Akihabara station. A nice little 6.7km walk to begin the day! (There were two days of "pre-conference" that I wasn't attending, but my boss was.)

I spent the rest of the morning window shopping, stopped at an Indian restaurant for lunch (they always have a vegetarian dish, so it's easy!), then more window shopping. There seem to have been relatively few really popular new anime in the past few years. But it's always fascinating to see the variety of goods that are available.

I returned to my hotel around 2pm to sleep. Around 7pm I got up and went to a Japanese curry place for dinner. I managed the entire conversation with the waitress in Japanese! I was really happy with myself for that.

Day 2

I began by taking the train to Shibuya, although I got off one station early so I could wander around the streets. I wanted to see the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, but it wasn't open! It wasn't clear if it was just that entrance that was closed, or whether it would open in a few hours, or what. I opted to continue walking.

About five minutes later, I realized that I was in the "dangerous" part of Shinjuku -- there's some sketchy places on the east side of the tracks. Fortunately, it didn't seem bad at 8am, so I kept to the middle of the street and passed through without incident.

I saw Meiji jinju, with some lovely morning mist rising off the pavement in the park. Unfortunately the main shrine was undergoing some renovations -- the chainsaw noise kind-of ruined the peace of the shrine. The surrounding woods were nice, though!

I then spent two hours in Harajuku looking for socks. One of my friends in Vancouver wanted some tabi (socks with a separation between the big toe and the other toes, ideal for sandals). Those were easy to find... but socks for her kids?! Not easy.

At 11:30am I gave up and had lunch (again at an Indian restaurant, but somewhat by accident -- I was looking through the side streets off from Takashita-dori, and it looked very un-crowded). I decided to give up on the socks, and head directly back to the station. But by chance, I passed a sock store, which had a whole rack of children's socks!

After that, I went to Nakano Broadway. What did I find, 4 stores away from the station? Another sock store, of course. Sigh. After another session of looking around, I headed back to my hotel to sleep for 3 hours.

That evening we had a business dinner: one of my boss' internet (and business) friends lives in Tokyo. We went to "Salt", a fancy restaurant on the sixth floor of the Marunouchi building (right next to Tokyo station). Unfortunately they'd changed their menu so the one they had online was out of date -- they no longer had a vegetarian main course, so that meal was slightly uncomfortable. Oh well, it was fun listening to the discussion.

Day 3

This was the first day of the full conference. I'd estimate 50-70 people there? There were two "tracks" (meaning two talks happening at the same time, in different rooms).

Happily, the conference lunch included vegetarian bento boxes! They were very colourful, delicious, and blessedly easy to eat.

Colin's talk went well: - Profiling the FreeBSD kernel boot PDF - Presentation video.

We were both tired at this point, so we had some pizza at an Italian restaurant for dinner.

Day 4

Second day of the conference. Many of the talks were not particularly in my area of interest -- lots of talks about bhyve (a virtualization layer), which I've never used. Still, it was nice to see people talking enthusiastically about their area of expertise. It made me want to do some more advanced work of my own, and present it at this conference next year.

One slight disappointment is that I would have liked to have talked to more Japanese people. I introduced myself to two people (in Japanese), but generally the conference-goers seemed to split into clusters of Japanese, and clusters of Europeans. I can understand why -- it's daunting to try to talk in a second or third language, and many of the Europeans had quite accented voices which would make it much harder for Japanese speakers to understand (since their exposure is to American English, with a bit of British thrown in). The next time I attend this conference, I'll try to be more fearless about speaking in Japanese.

Day 5 part 1

I got Colin back to the airport line, then went to Tokyo station to figure out my next step. Tokyo station is a zoo! Whenever I used it in the past, I knew exactly what I was doing -- transferring between the NEX (a different Narita airport express) and the green line. But this time, I wanted to stop at a vegan restaurant in the station (yes! A vegan restaurant in Japan! Of course I had to try it, and it was great.), and then I had to get my reserved shinkansen ticket for Osaka. That took a bit longer than I had anticipated, but I ended up on the train I was initially planning on getting (the 11:03 hikari train).

Part 2: Shinkansen, Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama

Day 5 part 2: Osaka

The shinkansen announcer used a British accent! Much nicer to hear than the American accent on the Tokyo trains. (That said, Christelle's voice isn't bad! I'm just not a fan of the California accent.) Incidentally, you should be entirely unsurprised to hear that there's a a youtube video of all the train announcements for the Yamanote line.

There's an incredible amount of leg room on the shinkansen, even in the ordinary shinkansen train cars. I'm vaguely curious to see what the green ("business class") cars are like, because those must be incredibly luxurious!

The average speed (including stops) was ~170 km/h (515 km in 3 hours). Wikipedia lists the "operating speed" as 285 km/h, which seems a bit high. We stopped at approximately 8 stations, and only for a few minutes each. Maybe I just didn't notice how much we slowed down for those stops? The acceleration was certainly smooth! On more than one occasion, I didn't realize that we'd started moving until 20-30 seconds after the train actually started.

Arrived at Osaka. Half-heartedly looked at a few restaurants at the station, but nothing looked particularly appealing (especially given the station noise). I ended up eating at an Indian restaurant 5 minutes away from the station (walking towards my hotel).

I checked into my Osaka hotel; it felt like something from the 1980s. It actually had keys for the rooms! I mean, not keycards! Weird. I was staying right next to Minamikata, which is one subway stop south of Shin-Osaka. It was a bit closer to the tracks than I realized. Or rather: I didn't realize that the "subway" line in this area was above-ground. (Yes, I should have checked on google maps street view). So it's was a bit noisier than I'd have liked. Granted, there's train tracks right beside my condo at home, so it wasn't a big deal. Just something that a more experienced traveller would have noticed before booking.

I took the subway to Namba and meandered around. It's certainly a lively area! It was fun for an hour during the day; I suspect that I'd feel too out of place if I were there at night or for a longer duration.

I eventually ended up at Ashiharabashi, and took the train to Osaka. This was unexpectedly fun because by chance I stepped into the first car, which had a transparent wall between the passengers and the conductor. I could watch him operate the train! I think that was the high point of the Osaka trip. :)

I meandered around the station and Yodabashi electronics store, then took the train to Juso. (Only one stop, but it was over a bridge and I wasn't certain if I could walk over that bridge). One of my childhood friends was an English teacher and lived in this area. I walked around a bit. Online, I'd seen some references to this being a "red light district", but I didn't see many signs of that when I was walking. Maybe 8pm was too early?

(I did see a few "massage" and "Thai smile" places that had flashing red lights around the sign. I wondered if that was a symbol that they offered something more... but then five minutes later, I saw a 7-11 with the same type of flashing red lights. So I discarded that theory.)

Also, there were a few cabaret bars on the other side of the train tracks from my hotel. I remember that this kind of thing kept on happening in Europe, too -- red light districts tend to have cheaper hotels than other parts of town. Also, these districts tend to be fairly close to train stations. So when I'm looking for places to stay on a hotel-search map, I tend to accidentally pick places close to red light districts. Maybe I'm just desensitized to such street signs.

Day 6: Kyoto

Took the shinkansen to Kyoto. No reservation, just waved my pass and walked straight on. (Literally walked on -- the train was already at the station!) I bought a convenience store breakfast and ate it on the train. That's allowed! At Kyoto, I took the local train to Fushimi Inari Taisha (that's the famous shrine with lots of red/orange gates).

There were already a fair number of people there. Noisy, annoying people. After walking up the path for about 5 minutes, I noticed a trail heading off to the right. I followed that, thinking it would be a one-minute trip to a little shrine. There was indeed such a shrine, but the trail continued. I spent the next 40 minutes walking up the mountain, and passed four people (plus one dog) in the entire time. 10/10 would do again! I ended up at a different mountain peak first, then I backtracked slightly and went to the main peak (and sadly rejoined the crowd).

Took the train to Demachiyanagi because I saw an advert in the train station for a vegan-friendly Falafel restaurant in that area. After lunch, I walked to Higashiyama Jisho-ji, saw the picturesque sand mound shaped like Mt. Fuji. I found that a bit underwhelming, but the gardens were nice.

I took the Philosopher's Path (哲学の道), which is a walkway beside a canal (so named because there's many temples and shrines in the area).

I stopped at a small coffee shop run by an elderly couple. The woman was quite talkative, and spoke in a strong Kansai dialect. I couldn't understand most of what she said, but I recognized the accent. (I'm not certain if that was her real accent, or if it was something she used for tourists -- for example, the way a waitress at a country bar might play up a Texan accent.) Still, it was a neat experience to hear that accent in real life. I think that was my favourite part of the Kyoto portion. :)

Walked to Nanzen-ji Temple. It has an aqueduct! A real, in-use aqueduct!

Went to Higashiyama station, train to Nijo Castle. Arrived at 4pm, heard warnings that I should see the inner palace first because they closed the inner part at 4:30pm. I walked on the famous "Nightingale floors", which wasn't as noisy as I expected.

I tried to walk west to Nijo station to take the train to the main Kyoto station. Unfortunately, I again got my directions messed up, and went south instead. By the time I realized my mistake, I was approximately equal distance from that train line and the main Kyoto station, so I kept on walking. (an extra 4km)

Train back to Osaka, ate omurice at the station. A family was sitting at the next table, and a 7-year-old (I'm guessing?) boy said "hello" to me, but he was too shy to say anything else.

Day 7: Nagoya and Yokohama

I took shinkansen again without any reservation. While I was looking at google maps on the train (I had the data SIM card by this point), I noticed a "salad bowl" vegetarian restaurant in Nagoya, so I decided to disembark and have lunch there.

I was a bit too early for lunch, so I wandered around a bit to waste time. I stopped at an Animate (anime goods store), and was surprised to see it packed at 11am on a Wednesday.

Lunch was great; they put the ingredients together, then chopped them up finely. Most of the menu items included chicken, but there were a few that were strictly vegetarian.

I arrived at Yokohama too early to check in, but the hotel let me drop off my suitcase. Tried to find something vegetarian nearby, but after 30 minutes, gave up and went to Subway. I really need to learn food-related kanji before my next Japan trip!

After checking in, I took the train to the main Yokohama station, then went to the Hara model train museum. Very impressive 30mx10m diorama!

I went up the Yokohama sky garden (273m high), saw nice views of the city. According to wikipedia, this 73-floor building has 79 elevators! (By contrast, my 30-floor condo has 2 elevators.)

I had dinner at an Udon fast-food place at Yokohama station.

Part 3: Toyama, Kanazawa, Tsukuba

For the final portion of my trip, I travelled with two of my Japanese friends. Travelling with somebody else -- not to mention people familiar with the local language and customs -- is a very different experience than travelling by yourself!

Day 8: Toyama

I checked out at 6:40am, walked 10 minutes to the Shin-Yokohama station, then waited for the first shinkansen at 7:03. The train was exactly on time, of course. I met my friends at Tokyo station at 7:30, and we headed off together for the last part of my Japan trip! We got the 8:26 shinkansen to Toyama, rented a car, and drove to Gokayama.

Gokayama is an area with traditional villages with straw huts; we went to two villages. I had a fantastic vegetarian meal at one of them. Best meal of the trip! (I even took photos of the food.) It was also up in the mountains, and the ground was still covered in 30cm of snow. Way more snow than we got in Vancouver this year!

Afterwards, we drove to Chirihama beach, then drove onto the beach. It's famous for allowing this -- the sand was very firmly packed. It was so weird to drive 3-4 meters away from the surf! I think this was the first day in my life that I'd walked on snow and sand.

We stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel). I tried wearing geta (traditional wooden shoes with two "teeth" on the bottom) for the first time. At first, it was very hard to balance myself (especially when walking up or down a slope!), but I adapted after a few minutes.

Day 9: Toyama and Kanazawa

Drove to Noto and visited the Nodojima aquarium. Amazing sea lion & dolphin show -- the sea lion followed the trainer like a puppy, and the dolphins performed incredible tricks. I had no idea they could jump that far out of the water!

Lunch at a "natural foods" store. My friends asked the waitress if my food could be vegetarian, and the restaurant was happy to substitute tofu for the fish.

Drove to Kanazawa. Stopped at a famous artisan sweets store, where I bought some packets of sweet beans, and a jar of potato honey.

We went to the 21st century museum of contemporary art. Neat doughnut-shaped building, with the center being a half-pool of water. Namely, the top looked like a small swimming pool, but the water was less than a meter deep, and the pool had a glass bottom. Underneath, there were museum-goers walking at the "bottom" of the "pool". It was interesting to see people wearing normal clothing and walking around, apparently at the bottom of a swimming pool.

We dropped off the rental car and checked into the hotel. Very swanky place; gold trim everywhere. Kanazawa used to be the main spot for gold-working in Japan. (Not mining, but rather shaping the gold into artistic things.)

Dinner was at a small bar, and we met a university friend of one of the women. The head cook (who I think was also the owner) lived in California for ten years, so he had good English. (The bar had approximately 8 tables for 4 people each, and an "open kitchen" plan.)

Day 10: Kanazawa and Tsukuba

We began with Kanazawa castle, which is a reconstructed wooden building. I'd previously only seen European castles, which were all made of stone. This castle had a low stone wall, but the main structure was wood, made without iron nails. I think that most of the load-bearing was done with diamond-shaped beams, with a few wooden pegs.

After that, we saw the Kenrokuen garden. Very pretty! There were many trees with ropes holding the branches up -- that's to protect the branches from snow during the winter.

Finally, we walked around Nagamachi, an old district with samurai houses and fancy crafts stores. Much too expensive to buy anything, but fun to look at!

Shinkansen to Tokyo, train to Tsukuba. We were then picked up and driven to a local park by the husband of one of my friends. When we arrived, the other friend picked up her suitcase and ran off (literally!). I thought that was a bit odd, but the first woman said that I'd be having dinner with her and her husband, so I shrugged and said "ok".

We walked to the restaurant, went to the upper floor -- and I discovered that they were throwing a surprise party for me! The woman who ran off had organized a meeting of the Japanese/English conversation group, and she made some final preparations for the surprise. There were 10 people (including me) at the party, and it was fantastic to see that the group was still active. It was a surreal experience, actually... I thought that "surprise parties" were something that only happened in movies!

I stayed overnight at the house of my married friend in Moriya (a town nearby to Tsukuba). The house reminded me slightly of house of one of my grandparents (the ones in Worcester). I know that some North Americans make a big deal about the small size of Japanese buildings (pun intended), but as far as I can tell, they're pretty much on par with European houses.

(Granted, Japanese hotel rooms are smaller than European ones.)

Day 11: Tsukuba

We began the day by jogging around Doho park (a big park close to my old residence and workplace), then I led 15 minutes of yoga (because they were curious about it). That was followed by a free shower at the park. (Japan is really clean and orderly! I can't imagine a park in Canada offering free heated showers.)

Lunch was at a vegan restaurant nearby. I was amused at the approach they took: "it's good for the environment if you eat without meat for one or two meals each month". Clearly they think that all-round veganism would be an impossible sell in Japan.

I finally saw the JAXA space center! My research institute was right next to it, but I never went while I worked there. I wanted to go, but I kept on thinking "not this weekend; I'll go later" and then ran out of time.

We then went to an animal cafe. Well, more of a "petting zoo" than a "cafe". I held a snake, as well as other animals. Even a porcupine! They supplied gloves for that.

To kill some time before dinner, we wandered around the mall for a bit, and went to a game center (arcade). Two of us tried a Virtual Reality skiing game. It was unexpectedly terrifying:

  • You stood in some vaguely ski-shaped tracks, with your hands on the machine's frame which was shaped like ski poles. The position, along with the goggles blocking out exterior light, makes an incredible difference in the immersion.
  • That ended up being frightening when the game physics didn't react the same way I was used to in real life. Namely, in real life you can put your skiis at a 90-degree angle to the slope and come to a stop. The game didn't let me turn that far, so I was always pointed (somewhat) down-slope and always accelerating faster than I wanted. Even though I knew intellectually that it was a game, seeing a huge black cliff rushing towards me, knowing that there was no way that I could avoid it, was hugely adrenaline-inducing.
  • Don't get me wrong: I'm very glad that I tried it, and I'm really looking forward to the future of VR games. I might even start going to arcades, because there's no way you can have multiple different types of games in a home setting (given that almost every game would need a different type of mechanical frame)! But I think that I'll look for games where you don't "die" quite so often.

For dinner, we tried to go to a restaurant in an old temple which was famous for its Soba noodles. But it was sold out -- they only had sweets left! So we bought food at a grocery store and ate at home. That was another fascinating part of the trip: a normal (or at least, normal-ish) Japanese evening. My friend's husband and I watched TV while the women prepared food. (Yes, that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but it was a small kitchen and I'd have just been in the way, especially given the language barrier and my unfamiliarity with Japanese cooking.)

Even the TV show was an interesting experience. It was a show where they went around cutting random objects (in a lab setting, not randomly waving a knife around). I think I remember them cutting a piece of quartz, a toilet, an ink seal (these are still used in Japan instead of a signature for formal documents), a remote control, and maybe 4 or 5 other things. After cutting the object and ceremoniously opening it, they spent 2-3 minutes talking about how it worked or what the different components were, then moved onto another object. In addition to the mechanics who were operating the blade-saw, they had a panel of people who gave exaggerated reactions to the objects.

Day 12: Tsukuba and Narita

I walked around Moriya for a little bit, then took the train to Tskukba. My hosts offered to drive me to the station (or to AIST), but I wanted to see the local sights.

Granted, "seeing the sights in Moriya" is a little bit like saying "I want to see the sights in Coquitlam". Not that either cities are bad places! They're both quite... adequate... places to live. But spending 15 minutes walking to a train station in either city is nothing like walking 15 minutes in the center of a European city, or like walking 15 minutes in many other places in Japan. Not that I regret getting a bit of exercise!

At Tsukuba, I wanted to see the new mall that was being built next to the station 3 years ago (when I left). Unfortunately, it didn't open until 10 or 11am, and by that time I wanted to be elsewhere. Fortunately, my friends had told me that there wasn't much to see there (it was generally the same stores that were in other malls), and looking at the store list from the outside confirmed that.

Instead, I walked around a few parks (Chuo and Matsumi), looked at my previous local supermarket (SEIYU in DAYZ TOWN), and bought some stuff at my local 100-yen store (Seriya). Then I walked past Ninomiya House and checked out a nearby shoe store. (My orchestra shoes came from that store, and my feet are small by North American stands but only slightly small by Japanese standards. Unfortunately I didn't find any shoes on sale that suited me, though.)

I walked to AIST (my old research institute), and went through the security gate and information desk in Japanese. I was amused that to gain entry to the building, the first secretary came down to let me in. That's quite proper -- I'm a visitor, she's the first secretary, etc. But in a less formal setting, I think it would have been the second secretary that came down to let me in -- I'd spent the past three day travelling with her, after all!

I met my previous boss, chatted about the research lab, and had a nice meal with them at the research institute's restaurant. The group has really expanded in the past three years, and it was great to see that they were doing so well!

Afterwards, I caught the bus from Tsukuba station to Narita, and flew back to Vancouver. My flight wasn't upgraded, but I still lucked out -- I had an empty seat beside me! That was my first time in premium economy, and it was definitely good enough for me.

Day 13+

After I'd been home for 24 hours or so, I started to get a runny nose, and after another two days, I realized that I had the flu and spent the next week in bed. Oh well -- at least it didn't happen while I was on the trip!