Friday, May 27, 2016

What We Did On Our Spring Holiday: Awajishima


We often go to Akashi, a town down the coast east of Kobe. It has a nice sleepy atmosphere, a good market street and some excellent food (octopus fishing is a big thing here). In the harbour we've often seen a ferry go back and forth between Akashi and the nearby island of Awajishma.

If you look at a map, Awajishima is in the middle of Osaka bay, right between the mainland and Shikoku. It's really close — you see it from the Osaka waterfront, and I was looking at the island from my previous job every day — and yet I had never once been there. Ritsuko, an Osaka native, had been there once on a middle-school trip, but never since.


Akashi Kaikyo O-hashi — The Great Akashi Bridge. Yes, It's huge.

So this time we didn't just look at the ferry; we bought tickets and took the 15 minute crossing to the island. There's two towns, Awaji and Sumoto, and there's a highway connecting the mainland with Shikoku, using the huge Akashi bridge. The ferry doesn't go to any of those places, though, but to a small fishing village called Iwaya near the northern tip of the island. It's really mostly a commuter ferry for people living in Iwaya but working, studying or shopping in Akashi city.


Central Iwaya. Hard to believe Osaka-Kobe is just 30 minutes
away. It really is a different world.
Awai itself is a fishing village and suburb to Akashi. We went mid-morning, thinking we'd eat lunch in the village. But there's only 3-4 places to eat within walking distance of the ferry landing (two of them in the ferry terminal itself) and they were crammed full, with people waiting in long lines outside. Awaji may not be a tourist destination, but somebody forgot to tell the tourists. A large group of Koreans, two buses with boy scouts and a big pile or random people such as ourselves was just too much for the place.


It's a fishing village, and most of the waterfront is all about fishing.


In the end we bought some bread and fruit in the terminal building — there's not even a convenience store, that's how small this place is — and enjoyed al fresco dining overlooking the Seto sea and the Great Akashi bridge.


A view from the big cliff in the harbour.

We took a long stroll along the seaside, looked at the fishing boats and just generally enjoyed an afternoon together with no commitments and no stress. Stop your life for a moment to smell the flowers. Late afternoon we boarded the ferry again and took the train back to Osaka. I can recommend this trip - but don't expect to actually do anything, and if you go, remember to pack a bento lunch.


Iwaya. You can see the highway and the interchange with its
shops and even a ferris wheel. But that is far from the 
village itself.

The pictures here are taken with the Meopta Flexaret, the TLR I bought in Prague last year. Overall I like the results I get with colour film (Ektar 100) using this camera. The camera works fine, although the infinity focus seems to be a bit off. I'll have to take a closer look at that.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Bali


This is absolutely ridiculous. I had the Bali pictures all done in January. This text was drafted months ago. All I had left was to cut down and edit the draft, and pick the pictures. But I was busy, one thing led to another, and weeks turned into months. It became embarrassing to post this, but at the same time I didn't want to "skip the line" with other posts either, so this was holding me up. So, here it is, five months late, unedited and too long, our winter trip to Bali.


Our winter holidays found us going to Bali, Indonesia. The idea felt very exotic — "Bali" has the otherworldly, far-away vibe of "Tahiti" or "Ulan Bator" to me. But it's really no farther from Osaka than the Canary Islands are from Sweden. Half a million Japanese visit each year (the fifth largest group), and there's a fairly large Japanese community living there.

Villa Beachside
Because of my work schedule and flight costs we decided to go between Christmas and New Year, returning on New Years morning. It's high season, but not too many people want to spend New years eve at an airport so it was easy to get a cheap flight.

We picked Bali because a friend of Ritsuko has a daughter that works as a web developer on the island. Any place becomes more fun to visit if you know somebody local, and a friend of hers runs a small 4-room hotel/villa in a village outside Sanur, called Villa Beachside. These kind of villas are really common on Bali, and surprisingly inexpensive - less than a cramped business hotel room in Japan.

There's only four rooms, and they are almost never all rented out at once, so you usually have the entire place all to yourself. You have a dining area, roof terrace, pool and a common kitchen and fridge if you want to cook. You can really treat it as your home. It's a bit remote but the staff will drive you to nearby Sanur for free, and you can rent car and driver for trips elsewhere. I can recommend that too — it's really helpful to have somebody local to help you find things.


A room at the villa.

Indonesia is a bit odd. It officially has freedom of religion, but that "freedom" is restricted to one of six required religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism. Everybody must belong to one of them, and people take religion very seriously in public(1). Bali is unique in Indonesia for being almost exclusively Hindu. The few other believers are all migrants from other parts of the country.

Bringing food offerings to the compound shrine.
Hinduism seems to completely suffuse Bali life. People say there's more shrines than people on the island and I have no problem believing it. There are many religious rules, and older people at least seem fairly strict about following them. The gods are assumed to reside on Agung, the central mountain on the island, so all shrines are directed toward the mountain, and you always - tourist hotels included - sleep with your head toward the mountain and the feet away from it.

In general, shrines and holy bits are placed higher up, while common or dirty areas are lower down. As a consequence you can't build buildings taller than that of the nearby temples. So Bali is blessedly (sic.) free from high-rises and tall, ugly resort hotels marring the view. There are plenty of hotels of course, but they're all low-slung and meld into the landscape rather than break away from it. This is great for the atmosphere on the island, and I hope they keep enforcing this rule.


Our view from the villa. Not a high-rise in sight.


Many Balinese live in traditional family "compounds", where an extended family shares a large, walled area with multiple buildings. The shrine area is closest to the mountain and highest up. Larger compounds are then divided into a middle area in the center with living quarters for the family heads and ceremonial buildings; and a lower, "dirty" area at the bottom with bathrooms, kitchens and where most members actually live.


A village street.

A family compound entrance. Could plant this design into any CRPG unedited and nobody would bat an eyelid. Same thing with some Japanese temples by the way; of course game designers will take inspiration where they can find it, and exotic, far-away locales are a good source of inspiration.

The island villages seem largely organized in compounds as well. The streets are lined with high walls, broken with ornate gates that lead inside. The repeated similar pattern feels more than a little like an early 90's adventure game. There's a fair number of small shops and restaurants ("warung") facing the street, run by the family inside.


Bike repair shop, possibly.


Improvised scarecrow.



Table coral in shallow water.
The diving and snorkelling is wonderful. Bali is part of a long island chain, and a sea current flows across the chain from north to south. That makes the sea around the island absolutely teeming with life, with large stretches of multiple types of coral and sealife. It's comparable to Okinawa, which is high praise indeed.

We took a half-day snorkelling trip to Lembongan with Mango Dive, a diving shop catering especially to Japanese visitors; and, not incidentally, owned by another friend of a friend. This was the one thing we really splurged on: a small chartered boat with just the instructor, the boat driver and the two of us. It takes about thirty minutes from the south end of Bali to the north tip of Lembongan.


Multiple species of coral.
The hotel tours and big charters all go to the same few snorkelling and swimming spots. Those places have reliably good conditions, and it also limits the damage to a few specific places. Of course, that also means lots and lots of people crowding in at the same spots; some operators even keep barges permanently anchored there, with cafes and enclosed "pools" for children.

With a small boat, we could go to a different area with far fewer people and more sealife. With only the two of us to keep an eye on, we could snorkel at spots with fairly strong currents and still be sure we wouldn't be lost if we got dragged along faster than we realized.The current does make snorkeling a little challenging; you have to work to stay in place or you quickly drift away.


Possibly an anemone on the left, and some deeper corals on the right. 

This was really the single best part of the entire trip. The boat crossing to the smaller island; the snorkelling; eating spicy chicken fried rice for lunch on the roof of the boat — it was all great. Free diving and snorkelling is a lot of fun, but it's frustrating that you only get a few seconds at a time at the bottom to take pictures. I really want to get a diving licence for next time.


Leaving Lembongan Island.

We try to go to a cooking class on our trips. We both enjoy cooking, and it's a fun way to learn a bit more about the local flavours and preparations. We went to Lobong Culinary Experience toward the central part of the island. It's held in a large family compound, run by a professional former hotel chef.



Lots of ingredients. Some familiar, others less so.

Cooking classes all tend to follow the same order of events, and this one is no different: you visit a market in the morning, where you can see, touch and smell local produce and common ingredients. Then you go to the family compound, where the guide tells you more about how the compound is organized and a few tidbits about Balinese social customs.


Prepping the Sambal.

Then we got down to cooking. The menu included minced chicken skewers, grilled chicken, a couple of salads, and a dessert. We were about 15 people, so we all made some different part of the finished meal. It was very well organized, with helpers doing prep work and cleaning up at all stages. At the end, we enjoyed our food for lunch.


The salads and chicken skewers. Delicious.

The class was not bad, but I honestly think the food is too, well, professional. Some of the steps - actually grilling the chicken for instance - happened completely out of sight, and with so many students none of us got to make a whole dish from start to finish. I'd much rather make one or two dishes from start to finish than bits and pieces from a dozen ones. This made for great food, but not such a great learning experience. Next time we should look for a cooking class with fewer students and home-cooked style dishes instead.


The cooking class compound. This is the central area reserved for ceremonies and senior family; the two buildings in the background is the rice storage.

Lunch at a Warung. Picture by Ritsuko.
Speaking of food(2), we had dinner at the villa when we arrived, ate twice at regular restaurants and made sandwiches at home once. Other than that, we mostly ate at some warung or other. A warung is a small family-run street-side restaurant or convenience store. The food and interior both tend to be rustic, and it can take a bit of courage to eat at such a place the first time.

A typical restaurant warung has a selection of rice dishes, toppings and soups, heavy on the chicken(3). You typically have a short menu on the wall behind the counter, and a large glass case on the counter-top with bowls of today's toppings, ranging from fried fish (and chicken, naturally), to vegetables, fermented beans (think crunchy, delicious natto) and hot sauces.


You order rice and the toppings you'd like to have. Then grab a drink and sit down to eat at one of the tables. Fun, simple, and often so very delicious. One warung nearby has a chicken soup (above on the left) that I could happily eat for the rest of my life.



A warung at a local market.

We loved this place. And we're absolutely going back. I'm even thinking of learning Indonesian. It's an easy language after all, and you can use it throughout south-east Asia.




Mount Agung.


#1 You can get arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for stating that you're not religious. It's impossible to know the real number of actual believers in such a situation, but it's a reasonable guess that not everybody is as religious as they make out to be in public.

#2 I always do, I know.

#3 All food here is heavy on the chicken. So are the streets, the backyards, garden walls and vacant lots. You wake at sunrise every morning to the verberating sound of dozens of chicken flocks in the neighbourhood greeting the sun.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Japanese Driving Licence II: Learn to Drive


So I got my licence. Of course, I last drove in traffic about fifteen years ago, before I came to Japan. And I probably haven't driven a car since 1993 when I got my motorcycle licence. 2016-1993 = *mumble* *mumble* middle age *mumble*

Having me behind the wheel of a car, in a major city, in left-hand traffic, after more than twenty years would be a disaster waiting to happen. So I've done what any sane adult would do: join a travelling circus take driving lessons.

Honmachi
No, I'm not going up there before I know what I'm doing.

Driving schools offer short refresher courses for people who no longer remember how to drive ("paper drivers") or want to brush up specific skills. They may have lived in a big city and never owned a car, or their spouse did all the driving. Or they do drive, but only in a quiet rural area.


I enrolled at the Orix driving school (warning: Japanese website design) in Minato-ku last week. I picked them only because getting there from home is convenient — they're right along the Chuo subway line — and because they had a special offer on their paper driver course, with 17000 yen for three lessons.

The first lesson was on their enclosed track. It let me get used to driving again and let the instructor evaluate my skill level without any old ladies being mowed down in the process. Turns out I do remember how to drive. Controlling the car, looking the right way, and starting and stopping smoothly came back to me immediately. I took the narrow S-turn and "crank" sections — a staple of the Japanese driving test — without trouble.

Overpass
Typical Osaka intersection.

The second and third lessons were out in traffic. At first we just circled around the fairly quiet streets in the harbour area, then we moved towards Nishi-ku and the high-density traffic in Namba.

Osaka is possibly one of the worst places in Japan for driving. Like Tokyo or Nagoya it's a big, busy city with lots of traffic and a complex road environment. But Osaka is worst in the country at following traffic rules(1). Pedestrians and bicyclists see signs, red lights and road markings as an annoyance or an art installation to enjoy while you saunter across the road or weave between cars going the wrong way along the middle of the street.

Shinsaibashi
This is a public road. For cars. Good luck.

To my surprise I got — well, not used to it, exactly, but I got resigned to the traffic fairly quickly. The speeds are pretty low overall, and people do drive conservatively. Speed regulation takes a bit of time to get used to. In Sweden, speeds are 50 or 30km/h, and it's easy to guess which just from the road. The default speed in Japan is 60km/h, but almost every street is regulated differently, with signs specifying 30, 40 or 50km/h, often with no obvious reason.

Traffic lights work a little differently in big intersections. You have a general red or green light, but also green arrows for the different directions. If the light is green you may turn, but there may be crossing traffic. If your arrow is green you can go, and all crossing or oncoming traffic has a red light. In busy intersections it can be impossible to see if the coast is clear when turning right so this gives you some safety. Except in Osaka, of course, where people tend to run red lights…

Korien
Smaller road in northeast Osaka.

I'd been prepared to add a lesson or two if needed. But at the end of the third lesson my teacher told me that I'm doing well enough to drive by myself in Osaka, and should be able to drive anywhere in Japan now. Good enough for me. I can figure out the highway tolls and tower parking systems by myself.

This time I won't let my skills go bad again, so I'll make a point of renting a car every six months or so from now on. We'll probably just end up going to IKEA or something, but since driving practice is the point that doesn't much matter of course.

Highway Crossing
Highways? I'll figure them out. I hope.

#1 Osaka has the highest all-over crime rate in the country, so I'm not too surprised.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Driving in Japan I: Get A Japanese Driving Licence


Friday was the first day of my (hopefully rather temporary) unemployment. With a bit of free time on my hands, I'm taking the opportunity to do something I should have done years ago: convert my Swedish driving licence(1) to Japanese. I haven't done so mainly because we live in Osaka, with excellent public transport, and because owning a car(2) is quite expensive. A registered parking space in Osaka city would by itself cost more than my daily commute to Kobe every month.

But now that I am differentially employed we no longer know what I will do or where we will live. Rural Japan has nothing like the dense subway and bus networks of the big cities so it's prudent to make sure we can get around anywhere just in case.


Converting a foreign licence can involve taking a theory test or even a simplified driving test for many countries. But for Swedish licences it's only paperwork, with no actual testing involved. They interview you and look over your documents to make sure that your training corresponds to what you would get in Japan; and that you lived in that country for at least three months after getting the licence. That's so young Japanese don't go to Indonesia or some place, get a licence there in a one-week intensive course, then convert it to a Japanese licence when they return.

The process is not difficult, but there's a fair amount of things to keep in mind. You need to assemble a pile of documents:

The Chuo-ku ward office.
  • Your licence and your passport, and copies of them. If you have renewed your licence since coming here, bring your older licences and passports too.

  • A certified translation of your licence. You get that from JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). The main point of the translation is not the language itself, I think, but that they translate the specifics of vehicle classes into the Japanese equivalents. Car and bike sizes and weights, allowable passengers and that sort of thing.

  • Your 住民票 or Certificate of Residence. You get that from your local ward office. Just tell them what you need it for and they'll give you the right document.

  • A picture, 3cm by 2.6 cm. This is not the picture that will end up on your licence. This is attached to your application so everybody can confirm that the same person is applying, taking tests, sitting for the licence picture and so on.

  • Proof that you lived in the country for three months after getting your licence. A passport with an entry stamp to Japan is not enough. I brought my Ph.D. certificate (showed that I went to grad school in Sweden), a Japanese certificate for my first job here that showed my address in Sweden, and a statement of financial support (also in Japanese) that showed my Swedish address at the time. Things like a phone bill or rental contract would work fine too.

Here's the steps I took, in turn:

First, go to the main JAF office. In Kansai that's in Ibaraki in Osaka, towards Kyoto. It's small and fairly quiet, and I think all other people there were also foreigners looking for a translation. For the most part, JAF's services involve things like emergency assistance, publishing maps and things like that; you don't normally need to visit them in person. This is one of the few things you do on-site. It took them about 30 minutes to translate the licence.


Furukawabashi station on the Keihan line.

Then, go to the Osaka prefectural police Driver's Licence Center in Kadoma in the north-east of Osaka city. It's along the Keihan line; you ride the express to Moriguchi, then change to a local train for another four stops to Furukawabashi. Walk south for about 1.5km and you're there. Pretty neat area, with lots of shops, some good cafés and a Kurazushi if you like your kaitensushi cheap and cheerful. I know I do.

The Osaka Prefectural Police Kadoma
Driving Licence Center.
When I get there they tell me that they accept applications between 8:30 and 13:30. As it's already past 2pm I'm too late. But they were happy to check my documents and see that I had everything I'd need.


I come back the next morning around 9am and met by chaos, with hordes milling about queueing up for their licence exams. If you come there to actually take the theory and driving tests you need to be there in the morning to get through the entire process by the end of the day. So the place is infested with nervous 20-somethings lining up for their licence exam applications, not unlike ants descending on a picknick.


Fortunately, the foreign licence exchange is a separate counter and not busy at all. You walk up, they check the documents you have and give you a two-page form to fill in. That form asks you when and where you took your licence, and what, exactly, you did to get it. What driving school did you use, or did you practice privately; what kind of theory test did you take - how many questions, yes/no or multiple choice; what did you do during the practical test and so on, and so on.

You fill it in as best you can (English is fine), and bring the form back to the counter. There a policeman who I swear could play the lead part of "insubordinate but likeable younger detective" in a police drama looked it over and asked me a series of detailed questions about the order of licence renewals; what, exactly, I did during car and motorcycle driving practice; and how the driving tests were conducted and in which order. I had to explain the ice-driving test in some detail; Japanese drivers apparently don't do that.

It took about half an hour in all. It's all in Japanese; I could handle it without problems so you don't need to be fluent or anything, but if you're not up to explaining the finer details of your driving school experience you'll want to bring somebody along to translate for you. While we were talking, the pile of licence test takers were finishing their eye test behind us.


Next you pay for the licence at the cashier. The cost depends on the vehicle classes you want to convert. I converted heavy motorcycle as well as regular car, and that totals about 7000 yen in all. You move on to the eye exam — it was empty by the time I got there — and take the ten-second test. They only test up to the legal limits, so really, if you can't pass this you probably couldn't find the eye exam room in the first place.

On the way back to the application counter you need to register a PIN code on a machine. This completely mystified me at first, but it turns out to have a point later on. You fill in two four-digit PINs — any code you like — and it spits out a ticket with the two PINs and a bar code. Hang on to that one; this will be the PIN code to access the digital data on your licence later on.


Maneuver test for small bikes. Looked really easy, to be honest.

Return your documents to the counter. There they will explain the exact terms and conditions of your licence. I'm a new driver in Japan so my licence is good for less than three years — until a month after my third birthday — and I'll have to put that "new driver" mark on any car I drive for the next year. Also, as a new driver I have some restrictions for motorcycles; I'm not allowed to ride a bike with a passenger for the first year and things like that. But I only converted my bike licence for old times' sake so I don't really mind.

You get your documents back, along with a coloured card (mine was blue) with a time slot for the photograph and licence delivery on the second floor. My slot was 30 minutes later; enough for a can of coffee and a few pictures of the area. Meanwhile the huge pile of people are now lining up behind the test counters on the second floor. Get to the photography counter well in advance. They announce the time slot and card colour for the next group. You get called up by name, line up and go in one by one. Remember the PIN code ticket? You shove the ticket into a machine there, sit down, they take your picture and you're done.


Go across the hall — the test takers have all disappeared to the testing rooms by now — to the licence delivery room along with the other people in your time slot. After ten or fifteen minutes a young office worker comes in, runs through a speech about responsibility and driving carefully, then calls each one up by name to deliver the licence. Congratulations, you are now a licensed driver! In all, the process took about two hours from the time I stepped into the building until I left. Not bad at all.


Licensed to drive. Now I just need to learn how again.

#1 is it "licence" or "license"? "Licence" is the noun, as in "A licence to kill". "License" is a verb, as in "You are licensed to kill cartoon villains for entertainment".

#2 I actually have much more experience riding bikes than driving cars, but my biking days ended when I got married. We decided that bikes are dangerous so we don't ride them any more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

End of Winter

It's about 7° outside today, and a dreary ice-cold rain has covered Kansai all day long like a wet, clammy blanket.


Curry-udon with fried chicken is perfect in depressing weather like this. 
Not the best for my body, perhaps, but great for my soul.

But this is the last of winter. We had a short spell of spring weather already last weekend, and by next week temperatures will start rising. And you can smell spring approaching even in this rain. Winter will end in just a few weeks.


And so will my job. For the past four years, I've been working in a team trying to model motor-related areas of the brain, and the muscles of the arm, in order to better understand the origin of motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The research project ends this month. I am unlikely to do another one.

I was a programmer long before I started university. Graduate school was not meant to be a career change, but a rare opportunity to learn science. I took a short postdoc in Japan believing I'd return to Sweden and to software development afterwards. But I realized I wanted to stay here. As my contacts are all in research, and as my visa allowed me only research jobs, I ended up doing a series of research projects over the past dozen years.

Last year I got turned down for a new research job, and I found myself relieved, not upset. I realized that what excites me is the people I work with and the technology we develop, rather than the research itself. I love science, but I don't have the temperament I'd need to love doing science. It's time to move on.


I'm waiting to hear back about one rare and very exciting job opening. If that one falls through I'll start looking more widely in the Osaka area beginning next month. What will I do? I don't know. That's both a little scary and very exhilarating. Spring is coming.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Daimaru Shinsaibashi

The Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store building in Namba, Osaka, is almost a century old. It's always felt a little old-world, a bit art-deco with stained glass and lots of stonework details. And now it's being torn down.

Daimaru
Daimaru Shinsaibashi during the last Christmas light decoration this winter. Ritsuko is in the picture if you look really closely.


It has been a landmark store in the area for longer than most people can remember. It was major news when the demolition was announced, and the final months the employees fought a losing battle against hordes of customers taking pictures of everything and anything related to the building. They recognized the great interest, so they had a one-time event late January where Daimaru card holders could enter the now-empty store and take pictures of the first floor area.

Daimaru
It was a popular place to meet. The entrance was usually full of people waiting for somebody.

Cafe
The mezzanine cafe. Low ceilings by today's standards.


It's sad that the store disappears, of course, but I can understand why. The building is almost certainly not up to modern earthquake standards. And while the building is very beautiful, it's also very worn and really a bit too cramped to work well as a department store. A lot of that beautiful stonework is cracked, the stone floors are worn and uneven, and the all-important depachika — the grocery and delicatessen one floor down — is really quite small and with low ceilings by today's standards.

Daimaru
One of the stairwells.

Pillar of light
A stairwell stone railing post. Beautiful design, but if you look closely, it's all quite worn, cracked and broken. You would have to outright replace a lot of the interior if you would try to renovate the building rather than rebuild.


The new building will keep the current design of the façade, and it's said they'll also incorporate elements of the old interior. Hopefully they will be able to keep the charm of the old design in the new one.

Daimaru
The main hall on the first floor. I was afraid it would feel sad or abandoned, but it wasn't like that at all. Lots of people were constantly coming by, talking, pointing and taking pictures. Celebrating the building rather than mourning it.

Ceiling
A pillar support on the ceiling. All that inlaid stonework and stained glass really is amazing, and now that the room was empty you could finally appreciate all that detail.

Escalators
These escalators have run for the last time.

Entrance
The stained-glass frieze above the entrance towards Midosuji.

Thistle
A stained-glass thistle.


The store has been here for as long as I've lived in Osaka — and all her life for Ritsuko, of course. Now it's gone. That's a major change. But that's OK. There will be a new store there in a couple of years; bigger, and perhaps even more beautiful. Change is often a good thing.