My blog whilst I'm in Japan, 17th to 29th July, 2006, and hopefully sometime thereafter.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Professor Shinohara has left the building

Unfortunately, he has to attend a dinner for retired professors this evening.

And now I must leave too. Noodles at the ramen shop tonight, then the shinkansen to Tokyo tomorrow morning and the flight to Heathrow.

Ja mata ...

Sayonara.

It's my last day in the lab. I'm flying back to Blighty tomorrow. All the students are packing up after the open campus, which adds to the air of finality.

It has been raining all day. Why am I the only one without an umbrella again?

Flights to Japan are only £388 with Turkish Airlines (see lastminute.com). Although this involves long waits at Istanbul, it sure beats the £1200 it cost with BA. Time to start saving again (I just blew my piggy bank on buying that Leica).

RoboCup

It is open campus at Tohoku University yesterday and today. The lab that I am visiting are showing off their team, Jollie Pochie, from RoboCup 2006 in Bremen, Germany. Here is one of the students with a dogbot:


Videos to appear on YouTube when it's back up.

Quantum computing

My project is Novel Machine Learning Approaches to Molecular Coherent Control. Professor Fujimura invited me to give a talk to his lab in the Chemistry Department on Wednesday. Afterward, three of his staff described their work to me. Two were working on designing laser pulses to implement operators needed in quantum computing (for Grover's algorithm and Shor's algorithm), fascinating stuff. The third had done some interesing work that casts doubt on the validity of my field as a whole, I tend to agree with it.

More details on my JPA webpage, including the slides for the presentation (I used PNGs this time, but it's still a PPS). Here's the first slide:

Matsushima

Professor Shinohara and two of his students took me for the afternoon on Tuesday. Matsushima is one of Japan's three great beauty spots.


The photos of Matsushima on my flickr site don't capture it's full glory, although Matsushima at sunrise is stunning.

We visited the Zuiganji Temple (btw, temples are Buddhist, shrines are Shinto):


and Fukuurijima Island:


Afterwards, they found a yakitoriya for me and we had various chicken parts barbequed on skewers.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More food

The food has been mostly fantastic. Here are the highlights.

yakiniku at Yakiyakiya - small pieces of meat that you cook over a charcoal grill on the table, including the Sendai speciality gyutan (cow's tongue).

bento from a stall at the station - lunch box of various meat, fish, rice and pickles.

sushi at Sushi-kan - unsurprisingly, this was far better than any sushi I'd had before. Even better was the sushi train at Uoki in Nagoya station, unagi (conger eel) is very tasty.

Lunch in the Engineering Faculty canteen - cooked fish, rice, miso, pickles, natto (soy beans in glue). Amazingly good value at 367 yen.

Breakfast at the hotel (see Thursday's blog).

sashimi, tempura, soba and various unrecognisables at a ryoriya with my hosts.

Broth of cow's innards, shredded radish and noodles at Yamana in Fukuoka. A local speciality, absolutely delicious.

okonomoni-yaki in Nagoya (see previous post).

ramen in Osu district of Nagoya - Chinese noodles in hot pepper broth with minced pork (I think). To slurp is good manners; although how one slurps without spraying I haven't figured out.

Various washoku at the local shokudo - I just pointed at the pictures, who knows what it was.

ranchi setto ("lunch set" with a Japanese accent) in the Engineering Faculty restaurant - cold soba (buckwheat noodles), rice and conger eel, dessert was soy bean machi (sweet rice dumplings covered with soy bean paste).

yakitori - any part of a chicken, barbequed on skewers: stomach, heart, neck, thigh, skin, wing, with lots of edamame and raw cabbage, pork ribs and barbequed rice cakes brushed with shoyu.

All with chopsticks (hashi). The whole cooked fish was the hardest (see previous post). Scrambled eggs are surprisingly easy, although pudding made from eggs and fish stock is nigh impossible. Lifting tofu out of miso is tricky (the slightest excess of pressure and it gently slips into two pieces and plops back in, getting ever smaller).

I think the live octopus can wait a while yet.

Raw chicken

I've been meaning to write something about the food for a while. Tonight ust weirded me out so I have to write to bring myself down. Since I don't understand written or spoken Japanese, and can't pronounce the few words I know very well, it is a bit of lottery. Pictures are good, menus in English are better, but scarce. Pictures outside a ryoriya (Japanese Restaurant) don't mean there's pictures on the menu. Even with pictures, much of the food isn't recognisable anyway (Emma, you were right;-).

The usual routine is to wonder (sic) around trying to peer into ryoriya to get an idea. This is tricky as few have windows and many are not on the ground floor. After failing to find anything recognisable, I give up and dive down a staircase or through some curtains. Tonight I went into a fairly posh place. For a moment I was confused by the waitress until I realised she was speaking clear English. She couldn't translate much of the menu, though. I ordered grilled fish (there was a picture). This was the most difficult thing I've tried to eat with chopsticks: seared until sealed, the exterior like waxed paper, the flesh glued to the skin and bones. I would have had difficulty with knife and fork. I ordered rice, but it wasn't that simple. I got three small balls of rice, topped with sour cream and a tempura prawn, on a square of nori seaweed; and sauce to dip it in. The waiter seemed to be indicating that I should eat it with my hands, but that was as difficult as using chopsticks. I made a mess of that too. I asked the waitress to recommend a vegetable dish and she suggested chicken and avocado salad. That sounded sane. Until it arrived. First, the waiter placed a small saucer on the small saucer that was already on the table and then some tongs onto the saucer. I have no idea what that was about. Then I tried some. Raw chicken. Totally weirded out. I've heard that fugu tastes like chicken (as does kangaroo, snake, alligator, ...). This chicken tasted like sashimi, but sashimi that was obviously a recently dead animal. Like raw beef, but more so. It was wrong like ketamine is wrong.

I wanted to order some ice cream after all that, but they seemed to be closing and the staff had disappeared. I just got the bill and walked out in a state of shock. Who knows what the ice cream would have been flavoured with ...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Atsuta-jingu shrine

The bar owner from the previous night said he was top in his year in Japan in Japanese history and recommended the Atsuta-jingu shrine in Nagoya. This Shinto shrine houses the Emperor's sacred sword - one of three divine symbols of the Imperial throne. There are some photos of Atsuta-jingu on my flick site. Here's one of a pigeon (hato):


An evening in Nagoya

I went to an out-of-the-way Rough Guide recommendation for food, but they had a wedding party on. Tired, I walked into the next restaurant I came to. It was an okonomoni-yaki restaurant ("eat what you like"). The only one I know of outside of Japan is Abeno on Museum Street in London; it is my favourite restaurant in the UK (although LMNT's in Hackney is a close second). Abeno claims to be the only okonomoni-yaki restaurant in Europe; Japanese are very surprised to hear there's one in London, so maybe it is.

The food is cabbage omelette with various meat and fish, cooked on hotplate built into the table. At the basic okonomoni-yaki restaurants, the diners cook the food themselves. At this place they do it for you, but there were no pictures and no English, just kanji.

After a while, the guy from the previous restaurant came in and invited me over. Afterwards, he invited me to his bar and then took me in a taxi to a club and left me there. iD Café - it's not a caf
é, and it won't get into iD magazine, but I did have to show my passport to get in (do I look under twenty?) and they served aisu koohii. Clientele was a mixture of Japanese, Brazilian, ex-pats and tourists. (Nagoya seems to have a significant Brazilian contingent, most signs had English and Portuguese translations.) 5F (i.e. fourth floor in old money) was bland house, 4F was crass soul, 3F was cheap hip-hop, 2F and 1F sounded good compared to the above, until I realised that Ibiza house only sounds good when compared to worse trash. B1F was popular 70s and disco and tolerable for a while. Finally, B2F was where it was at - reggae; but I was too jaded by then ;-).

Nagoya

Rewind to Saturday. I arrived in Nagoya around 2pm. It was hot and damp (today's forecast is heavy showers, 31 degrees Celsius and 84% relative humidity; tomorrow's forecast is sunny, 33 degrees and 54% relative humidity). Nagoya is Japan's fourth biggest city, population 2.2million. I trudged around looking for some lunch, to no avail, then a café, but no luck. Tired, hot, sweaty and irritable, I nearly gave up and booked myself into another bijinesu hoteru (business hotel), like the one's I'd stayed in in Sendai and Fukuoka. These are Western style (that's Travelodge, not Lee Marvin), but all sources (friends and guidebooks) said a stay in a ryokan was a must. I steeled myself, found a café, had the ubiquitous elixir known as aisu koohii, and got a subway to Kamimaezu and walked to Ryokan Yamazen - now I was really in Japan. Photos of Ryokan Yamazen on my flickr site.

I'd gone to Nagoya for the suumo basho (note, pronouncing it "soomow" - as the spelling "sumo" implies to English speakers - is unintelligible to Japanese). However, Sunday was the last day of the basho (tournament) and it was sold out. Asashoryu lost his last bout, but won the tournament 14-1. (Each wrestler competes once for each of the fifteen days of the basho.) Details and pictures on Cibersumo in English and Spanish. On Sunday night I saw a suumo wrestler in the ramen shop I was in. I was too busy slurping to get a photo (and feeling too much like a gaijin - foreigner - to get a camera out).

Sitting at the back, scribbling in my blog, again

Eric, a US student here on an exchange as part of his undergraduate degree, has just walked into the lab and started giving a presentation. No warning - strange how things happen over here. The presentation is on the use of neural networks in videogames (Quake 3). The final year project I supervised this year was in the same area.

Ayumi Shinohara, who runs the lab I'm visiting, was going to show me around today (apparently, the hot springs are worth a visit). However, the weather is pretty dreary, so I may be stuck in the office.

Fukoka to Nagoya

I took the Nozomi Super Express (the fastest shinkansen) from Fukuoka to Nagoya on Saturday morning. Here are some photos from the train.

The Nozomi is the fastest and most expensive. It is also possible to travel on other shinkansen for slightly less or on Limited Express services for much less. Get a Japan Rail Pass before coming here if you're on a tourist visa. The trains are fantastic.

Fukuoka

Fukuoka is the largest city on Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu. There are some photos on my flickr site: photos of Fukuoka. Here is one of a yatai, a mobile restaurant:


I only stayed one night. I wandered around the Tenjin and Nakasu districts looking for a bar or a club to go to. I was utterly bewildered. Tenjin is where the cool kids hang out, Nakasu is where businessmen are escorted by hostesses. There are so many lights and signs and twists and turns. I was too disconfubulated to take any photos of it all. Can I have my brain back now please?

Kyushu University

Friday morning I flew from Sendai to Fukuoka. The flight was at 8:30am and the gate opens at 8:15am. I got there at 7:30am expecting to be utterly confused but Sendai airport is very small and it was as simple as getting a train.

I was supposed to be visiting Setsuo Arikawa at Kyushu University. However, he couldn't see me (he is quite high up). I met Hideo Bannai and Kohei Hatano in the Department of Informatics and went over my presentation in some detail for over an hour. There was about an hour of useful discussion afterwards as well. I'm here on a Japan Partnering Award involving UWA, Kyushu, Tohoku and Osaka, so we'll hopefully have something to show for the money!

DTI ate my JPEGs

As I was just finishing off my presentation, all the JPEGs in my PPT started disappearing. Some kind of security hole in Windows. I couldn't install the required updates. I frantically repaired the presentation in a race against whatever was eating my pictures. I'm not sure how much of it made sense to my audience, but they appreciated my effort. Now I can't seem to scp, so the presentation won't be appearing on my website (http://users.aber.ac.uk/rtb) until I get that fixed ...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

My Father, My King

I had breakfast (chohshoku) in the hotel (hoteru) this morning (kesa). [Please note my roomaji are not entirely consistent as there are various possible transliterations and I'm getting them from different sources.]

Muzak to accompany breakfast as I'd expect in the UK? No, "My Father, My King" by Mogwai - 20 minutes and 21 seconds of guitars. Awesome.

As was breakfast. I had the choice of:
  • continental - rolls with whipped butter from Hokkaido (delicious), pastries;
  • Sino-English - rectangular slivers of bacon, scrambled egg with cheese(?) and mustard, slender but limp mushrooms;
  • healthy - fruit pieces, fruit salad, muesli; and
  • traditional - cooked fish, pickles (sunomono, made with dainty cucumbers is my favourite), rice and miso soup.
I went for globalisation.

Must start doing some work. I am giving a presentation this afternoon on the use of artificial intelligence for the control of quantum dynamical processes in molecules with lasers. I was expecting an audience of academics (i.e. versed in computer science and able to read technical English). I have instead the aforementioned finalists and masters students. My Japanese is almost as good as their English (actually, Japanese can be quite shy about speaking English if they have not mastered it, so they are probably a lot more advanced in English, but are too embarrassed to try, the way round this is to smile a lot). I am redoing the presentation with: less material on advanced computer science topics but with more explanation, more explanations of the chemistry, less quantum dynamics, more pictures, and kanji for technical terms.

Ja mata ne!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sitting at the back, scribbling in my blog

I am in a lab in the Faculty of Engineering at Tohoku University, Sendai. There are six students (final year undergrads and masters) and their professor. One of the students is giving a presentation on Genetic Algorithms in Japanese.

I tried to install some Firefox extensions for Japanese. This required installing East Asian fonts on XP, which involved trying to explain to one of the students that I wanted to copy the files from his PC. We succeeded, and now my homepage looks like this:


Which, I think you'll agree, is much clearer.

The Firefox extension Moji translates kanji and words, as well as providing composition, hiragana, various indices and other details, and the Korean reading. I've also got FireDictionary, which is a Firefox extension that translates English into Japanese. Be careful though, I translated "fruit" into Japanese. Now, fruit that you eat is "kudamono" in romaji (phonetic roman for Japanese). However, I don't know what the kanji for fruit is, so I just copied the first entry. It was the kanji for "homo(sexual)" (the kanji for colloquialism was in brackets). I don't think I'll be writing "Japanese as she is Spoke [scroll down for the editors review]" anytime soon.

Tips for Travelling to Japan

Avoid jet lag with Thought Field Therapy (TFT). I think you'll have to buy or borrow the book if you want to know how. This website from a former colleague of the inventor debunks TFT. Admirably quoting Popper (but see also Kuhn for a different perspective of science).

Learn Japanese with visual memory: Linkword. Try the online demo.
Forget "Teach Yourself ..." books and tapes.

Although, for kanji, "Teach Yourself Beginner's Japanese Script" is pretty good. I'm visiting Ayumi Shinohara at Tohoku University. I wrote out "Aberystwyth" in roman letters, to much bewilderment from his students. Then found myself remembering the kanji for "kuchi", i.e. mouth in English ("aber" is river mouth or confluence in Welsh) and for "kawa", i.e. river in English. I'm in.

Wear slip-on shoes. My boxing trainers would have been a disaster - five minutes to untie every time you enter a room, only to say "konnichiwa", bow, and smile uncertainly before taking another ten minutes to put them back on, go back into the corridor and do it all again. No wonder sumo wrestlers are barefoot.

more more

Answers to questions:

Q. Are you enjoying the experience so far?
A. I'm experiencing the experience. Like Robert M. Pirsig's "Quality" in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I should also bear in mind Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog "we're all so happy, if only we'd realise it at the time".

Q. What's been the most surprising thing?
A. It's just like it is on TV! There are hundreds of schoolgirls in checked skirts and white blouses, schoolboys in dark trousers and white shirts (shiroi shatsu). Thousands of anime comics in the bookstore. Sushi restaurants. Anime porn in the corner shops. Indecipherable neon signs. Immaculate trains that are accurate to the second. Everyone bows for any or seemingly no reason. One reviewer described a recent Yoko Ono album as "bonkers!" - that isn't quite it, there's something intangible in the air.

Q. What's been the greatest challenge?
Going into a restaurant (Yaki Yaki Ya Honpu on Basui Dori) with everything written in kanji (Chinese script used for normal Japanese writing), no-one who speaks English (except for "very hungry?", "money?" and "iced coffee?") asking the waitress to choose for me ("o-makase shimasu") and then realising that I had to cook it myself on the gas-fired charcoals in front of me.

Q. Anything made you laugh?
Nothing in particular; everynow and then - when my brain is overloaded with trying to spot the few kanji I know from several thousand, when I can't work out whether or should be on the right or left, when I am shell-shocked after coming out of a department store - I start laughing, overwhelmed by the sheer experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Shopping

I hate shopping in the UK. I get a panic attack at Sainsbury's. I am simply agog in Japan. I walk into a shop and - whether it's the electronic megastore Yodobashi Camera or the local convenience store - I want to buy EVERYTHING.

However, I am blessed with fortitude. So far I have bought:
  • highly caffeinated green tea (o-cha)


  • strawberry chocolate


  • fructose honey syrup ("FOR COFFEE, TEA etc.")
  • Japanese snacks


  • 512kB flash memory


  • notebook ("suitable for writing")
  • umbrella (it is rainy season, everyone has transparent umbrellas that cost 150 yen - less than a pound)
  • white gloves
  • multicoloured suitcase belt
  • one cup "DRIP ON" filter coffee
  • Lucky Strike (320 yen, about £1.50 - I'm back up to 20-a-day)
  • iced coffee (aisu koohii) in a can
Shopping is fantastic because:
  1. the suitcases are wrapped in transparent vinyl and a shop assistant is gently dusting the vinyl
  2. when you buy a bento (lunch box) you get chopsticks
  3. when you buy a carton of orange juice you get a straw
  4. when you buy crisps you get a wet wipe

Photos - Getting Here

The plane:


Somewhere above Japan:


Paddies, from the Shinkansen (bullet train):


Trash:


From my hotel room window:

I'm in Japan!

I once went to a beach party on the Thames. We were round a bonfire, dancing to pumping music coming from a rig on the beach under the bridge. A young woman suddenly said "Hey!" and there was a pause, then "we're dancing round a bonfire ... on a beach ... on the Thames!"

Well, I'm in Japan! And my home page looks like this: