Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ready, Set, Rain!

It has been raining for two days now and today was especially bad with the rain going sideways and with huge drops. According to the Japanese Meteorological Agency for the period between May 24th and June 23rd, there is a 40% chance of precipitation every-single-day... Well, I guess there is not much one can do other than make sure not to forget the umbrella at home. I really like the sun and blue skies so this is a bit harder on me... If you are reading this and you happen to be in Japan, well, hang in there. I heard that the summer season starts "officially" after this and it is pretty darn sunny then. In fact, I am looking forward to visiting Okinawa (沖縄) then and taking a dip in the ocean... I will hang onto that thought to keep me going ;)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Rainy season is coming

I know it has been a few days since I last wrote - I have been pretty busy getting work under control again. The weather has been pretty good contrary to the weather reports constantly mentioning rain. The rainy season, which is supposed to last a month, is going to start soon after all but so far so good with the sun. I think this , well these few days until the rain comes, is probably the best time of the year to be in Tokyo in terms of the weather...

I took this picture (which has nothing to do with the weather) on Sunday at Kichijouji (吉祥寺). It is yet another example of something that seems to get lost in translation. Just read the English labels on the box ;)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Half a liter... coke can...

Japan is not anything if not full of choices on pretty much anything and everything. This manifests itself not just in things like cars and electronics with many Japan-only, a.k.a. "domestic", models but even in things like types of bottles/cans available from vending machines. This is one of the prime examples I think. I personally like the "normal" sized can which is also a bottle (basically a short, fat, metallic bottle) but this one has about double the amount of coke - well, a full half a liter of it. I have seen beer cans which I think were comparable size before in the US and in Cyprus but never coke... Well, as they say - it's good to have choices. The label is another example of "interesting English". I don't think I have ever seen Coke being marketed as "uplifting" before; it must be the sugar and caffeine ;)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Getting to/from the airport cheap - "Airport Limousine"

The "Airport Limousine" is the fancy name given to the busses that service both Haneda (羽田) and Narita(成田) Airports. They are pretty convenient in the sense that there are busses at worst every hour and they take people to hotels in popular areas of Tokyo like Shinjuku(新宿) as well as various train stations like Kichijouji(吉祥寺) which is what was the most important thing to me. Haneda is far away from Kichijouji - it takes about an hour or so on the normal subway/JR trains but it is like walking distance compared to Narita. Narita Express, which is supposed to be an "Express" train as its name suggests, takes about an hour and a half. The Express is unfortunately not available quite as frequently as the bus however, and it costs slightly more (about 200 yen more - 3200円 vs 3000円). In fact, in order to take the train on the way to the airport, I had to take it at 6 in the morning which was OK since I had an early flight but if I wanted to take it on the way back I would have had to wait for a few hours at the airport.
The bus trip from Narita to Kichijouji is non-stop and it takes about two hours. It is a nice bus and everything but still, it's a bus. The ride is nowhere as smooth as the Narita Express. When the alternative is wasting a few hours waiting or taking the slow train and wasting an hour as well as lugging around a huge suitcase I think the bus wins. For anyone staying at a hotel the bus is hard to beat too - it will drop you right in the front of the hotel.

Tickets are available from travel agencies (apparently) or more easily from the airport. They do pickups too but from some locations they require a reservation. They even have an English website with schedules an information at (come on, you can't beat a website with a section named "For your useful information" :)).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Entering Japan with a re-entry permit

After a holiday that was not nearly long enough (but then no holiday is, right?) I came back to Japan today. The ANA flight from Chicago to Narita was pleasant with polite stewardeses and a more than decent entertaintment system with the only point of complaint for me being the leg-room though I think Emirates was a more pleasant flight. I am starting to think may be all those people in the business and first class know what they are doing. After the flight though I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get through immigration when one has a re-entry permit...
There are booths specifically arranged for people with the re-entry permits - almost as many as the booths for tourists. This means very short (if at all) waiting time. Since the working permit and re-entry permit are self explanatory almost no questions are asked (not that many were asked with the working permit alone, entering the country for the first time, but still...) Unfortunately jet lag seems to be getting to me more strongly than when I travelled west but at least I managed to stay up till 11 pm - hopefully that will be good enough to make sure I don't pass out at the office tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will talk about another way to get to/from the Airport that I tried for the first time today - the "Airport Limousine".

Monday, May 19, 2008

An inspiring "Last Lecture"

Today, at the graduation ceremonies I was lucky enough to witness more than one inspiring speech - Vice President Al Gore, founder of Jeff Bezos, and Randy Pausch who is a professor at Carnegie Mellon gave talks. Even though both Al Gore's and Jeff Bezos' speeches were great, Professor Pausch's speech was more.. special...
To put things into perspective - Professor Pausch has been with Carnegie Mellon for quite a few years. Before that he worked with Disney and at CMU he led the Entertainment and Technology Center under School of Computer Science where he has been extremely succesful. The problem though is that he also was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last August and the doctors gave him only a few months to live. I guess this changed his perspectives on things and he gave this talk at CMU entitled "The Last Lecture". I was not around for the talk unfortunately but I did see the talk he gave today which was great. I did manage to dig up the original talk from Youtube though and it is definitely worth checking out. I am embedding it right below.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

About to go to graduation - and it's still raining...

Man, in all my graduations in Pittsburgh, and I had 2 so far, it has rained. I don't know if I should take this as a sign of sorts :P Yesterday was the hooding ceremony which I thought was kind of cool. I got to have my advisors put a PhD hood on me though I must say it looks like "older" schools seem to have better hoods/robes. Ours is all black with a blue/tartan hood which looks nice but very plain and generic at the same time save for the tartan. I did get to meet some friends/faculty that I doubt I will see again for a while. Today I will also meet my undergraduate advisor whom I haven't seen for at least 5 years or so as well. Ok, gotto run - the breakfast already started!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Back in Pittsburgh, in a bright orange Mustang

I spent 10 years in Pittsburgh and now that I am back in town for the graduation I find that not much has changed. In fact while driving around the town it almost feels like I have never left... Talking about driving - I originally had a convertible reserved from Budget but the nice lady at the counter gave me a free upgrade to a Mustang. Let me go on the record to say that a Mustang is a terrible car if you have more than two people and/or need to carry lots of luggage but otherwise it is a pretty fun car. I have been enjoying it for the last two days.

There is a lot to write about Pittsburgh - it is such a nice little city. Very green, relatively cheap, extremely passionate about sports, and of course home to my alma-mater Carnegie Mellon. It is also relatively quiet, full of students during the school year, and to me almost like home...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Manhattan by the sea and Central Park

Ok, I think I was more than a bit hasty when I said New York did not look as impressive as before. It turns out simply Sunday nights are not the best nights to visit New York.

I went on a Circle Lines cruise which goes around the Manhattan island and goes by the Statue of Liberty. The view was great and the tour is relatively cheap (around $30 for about 2 hours). I definitely recommend to anyone who does not get seasick very easily. We had a pretty funny guide who was also very informative. Turns out he is from Pittsburgh originally and came to the city about 20 years ago for his Master's degree.

Today I went to the City again and Times Square was fully alive unlike how it was on Sunday. This is the NYC I know and love. We went to Central Park which was so beautiful under the sun and full of New Yorkers enjoying the day. Even though I had seen the park before I had never had a chance to visit Strawberry Fields or John Lennon's residence. The design on the floor with the word "Imagine" says quite a bit...

Monday, May 12, 2008

New York, New York!

Well, after a nice flight on ANA (which I must still mention did not have nearly as much legroom as the Emirates flight I took from Cyprus to Japan but did offer a very nice entertainment system and I watched the Japanese movie "Hero" with English subtitles) here I am in New York. Fortunately I did not really get any jetlag thanks to sleeping a solid 8 hours on the plane...

Tonight I was in New York City after about a year. I must say it felt a bit underwhelming unfortunately. May be because it was Mother's Day, because it was a Sunday night or because of experiencing Tokyo that The City did not feel as unique an experience as before. There were markedly less people on the streets, many more police officers than before, we had a very difficult time finding a place to eat something after 12 even on the main streets and we barely found an open bar.

I should turn in - it is almost 3 am and tomorrow I will try to wake up relatively early so as not to miss the day. More on Port Washington tomorrow...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Changing continents...

I will be going to the US tomorrow for about 8 days. It will be both a holiday and a bit of business for me - after spending a few days in New York, I will be back at good old Pittsburgh for attending the graduation ceremonies I missed last year and to give a talk at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, about the company I work for in Japan - SECOM. I will try to keep on posting from the US.

I will be flying on a Japanese carrier - ANA. I have tried JAL before on a local flight from Osaka to Haneda but never ANA. I heard good things from colleagues and friends who have tried it before. If it is anything like Emirates which I enjoyed quite a bit then I am sure it will be a nice experience. This also will be the first time I use my re-entry permit to Japan. This is supposed to streamline the immigration process when re-entering Japan when on a working visa so hopefully this will mean less time spent in the airport on the way back.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Crystals, Black Eggs, Sulphur, and a Crater Lake

No, these are not from a sci-fi movie or a mystic tale; they are all things you can see around Hakone.

There are quite a few museums in Hakone including a museum for the Little Prince (the little kid who lived on his own small planet with a flower he kept watering) recreating the streets of Paris during the lifetime of the author of the story, an outdoor sculpture museum featuring sculptures based on designs by Picasso and even a hotspring museum where one can sample different kinds of hotsprings. I went to the Venetian Glass museum which is home to very beautiful works of glass as well as jewellery. The museum itself is very pretty - designed as a big Italian mansion complete with its own ponds, a beautiful garden, and lots of sculptures. I also tried out its restaurant which has Italian dishes. I recommend the "Fruit Tea" which is made from real fruit soaked in tea and brought to the table in a glass pot filled with fruits. There is also live music from an Italian band. I was surprised to see that Japanese visitors to the restaurant actually took pictures with the singer...

In order to get to the "Black Eggs", or 黒たまご, one needs to take the ropeway up onto the top of the volcano. This meant taking first the cable car from Gora to Souunzan(早雲山) and then the ropeway from Soounzan to Oowakudani (大涌谷). The view is amazing as the ropeway makes its way to the top of the mountain. After it goes above "the hump", suddenly the trees make way for a much more barren looking terrain and the smell of sulphur. This is the source of the hotsprings with smoke rising from the fire burning deep underground. The pipes carry the hot water down the mountain but there is more up here than just a pretty view.

On top of the mountain, over 1000 meters high from the sea level, a short walk from the Oowakudani station is the souvenir store which sells world famous "Black Eggs". These are eggs cooked in the minral rich water which turns them solid black. The legend is that eating one egg would increase one's lifespan by seven years! Beware if you are not too big on eggs though. They taste just like normal eggs and the smallest portion you can get is 6 eggs for 500 yen. I ended up eating three which was actually great given that I had to skip lunch. Sometimes the top of the mountain can be very cloudy cutting the visibility down to no more than a hundred meters. The store also sells other "black" souvenirs such as manjou with a black "skin". Almost everyone makes a stop at this station even though it is possible to just switch to the final ropeway connection directly if just going to Lake Ashi.

The ropeway continues on in the opposite way from Gora down to a beautiful crater lake called "Lake Ashi" or 芦ノ湖. The view of the lake with the ships is mindblowing from the ropeway. There is a "Pirate Ship" that takes visitors from the last stop of the ropeway, Tougendai (桃源台). The tickets for the ship and the boarding point are connected to the station. I got the "Hakone Freepass" which lets one board any of the trains and even the ship free so I did not have to get a ticket though for the "first class seats" one can buy an upgrade for a few hundred yen if desired. The ship goes through the lake coming to stop at the other end. From here on it was time to get back to Hakone Yumoto for the train to get back. Fortunately Free pass also covers the bus from the port to Hakone Yumoto which takes about only a half hour.
I thoroughly recommend Hakone to anyone living in or around the area including Tokyo. It may be slightly expensive but it is definitely worth it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Snow, Moon, and Flowers in Gora

I stayed at a very nice hotel close to the Gora Station named Setsugetsuka(雪月花 - literally "Snow, Moon, and Flowers") which truly deserves its name. Situated on a small hill close to the station, you realize that you are entering a very traditional hotel when you enter the garden and are greeted with an entrance and lobby designed with very Japanese overtones with the hotel staff all dressed in kimonos/yukatas. It is at the lobby that you learn that you can indeed choose a yukata yourself for free that you can wear while you stay at the hotel. I strongly recommend doing this - yukatas are so comfortable even if a little hard to take long steps in ;)

The room design manages to fuse together traditional with the newest technology. From the beds to tatami floor it's a clearly Japanese design. There is even space and equipment for a traditional tea ceremony. However, the room squeezes in a nicely sized LCD which can accept SD cards for viewing digital camera pictures, a digital A/C unit mounted to the ceiling so that it is completely out of the way, heated toilet seats, and a 100 MBit internet connection. The food was very traditional (unlimited sushi and tempura for dinner, grilled salmon for breakfast).

Of course the hotel is famous for hot springs more than anything else and there are both private and public hot springs. The public ones allow quite a few number of people to make use of them at the same time though male and female public baths are seperate. The private hot springs are smaller - there are three of them, all with different designs. The use of the private springs are on a first come first serve basis so one needs to watch a special board listing their availability that is visible from all rooms' balconies. The hot springs is... hot... I got a chance to try one of the three private hot springs and I was completely red after staying in the water for 15 minutes or so. I could not help but think though that it must be an awesome experience during snowing in winter.

There is so much more to say about the hotel but I think this is enough to give you an idea ;) Tomorrow, onto other things to do at Hakone...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Travelling to Hakone(箱根) and then Gora(強羅), from Tokyo

Hakone is a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists. During local holidays such as the Golden Week it is extremely hard to find vacancy in hotels or transportation short of driving there on one's own - it's a good thing I managed to find both but ideally you would want to make a reservation at least a month in advance. I used Odakyu Travel (小田急トラベル) for booking both the hotel and the train trip but I get ahead of myself. Let's get back to the actual travel...

The hotel I stayed in was in Gora, one of the "hot spring centers" which is about 500 meters above sea level. Going up the mountain is possible using the Hakone Tozan Railway, Japan's only mountain railway. The train follows an interesting path, going back and forth as it ascends the mountain and earning it its name - "switchback". The trip up the mountain takes less than an hour and Gora is the final stop. As there is only one line serving the stops on the mountain the train is almost always full to capacity. The first stop of the line is Hakone-Yumoto (箱根湯本) which is where I boarded the train. Of course this meant getting to Hakone-Yumoto first.

Odakyu has a regular Semi-Express service called "Romance Car" (ロマンスカー) which runs between Shinjuku and Hakone-Yumoto covering the distance in about an hour and a half. There are a few different types of trains used ranging from relatively old (called EXE which literally stands for "Excellent Express") to put in service less than a few years ago (called VSE). All trains have reserved seats, a bar, menus to order food from, and some like the VSE also offer a really nice view as the train is controlled from the "second floor" meaning there is a huge window in the first and the last car to watch the outside.

Waking up around 6:30 am I was in Gora around 10:30 am which is not so bad when one considers how radically different the two locations are - from tight, crowded streets of Tokyo to open mountains. Tomorrow, onto describing Gora and the hotel (which I do a disservice by just calling it a hotel - it was more like an experience ;) I will give a hint - think Kimonos).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Golden Week trip to Hakone (箱根)

I just came back from a two day trip to Hakone and I am extremely tired from all the travelling. Even though I spent most of the day Saturday in hot springs relaxing, I spent the day today travelling around Hakone using the Hakone Ropeway, Tozan Cable Car and even a ship on the crater lake Ashi (芦ノ湖). I know this will be somewhat of a teaser but I am way too tired to do the trip justice if I write about it now. Instead I will just paste one of the pictures I took today and I promise tomorrow I will start writing about the trip itself and not skimp on the details ;)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Children's Day (こどもの日)

Children's day in Japan, or "Boy's Day" as it is traditionally known (端午の節句), is one of the holidays making up Golden Week (in fact it is the last day).

The parents in households with at least one little boy put up poles with three fish shaped kite like things hanging from it. What I heard is that they symbolize the parents and the boy facing the hardships of life and beating them - just like the fish swimming upstream. The parents also put a samurai helmet inside the apartment which symbolizes strength. Even though Children's Day is on May 5th this year "the fish" have been out for a few days already. I took a picture of one apartment with them on my way to work yesterday. They look really pretty in the wind...