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
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.
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
Part 1: Tokyo
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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,
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.
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!