Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

Holiday Time

The holidays are coming up, and the calendar gods are truly smiling upon us this year! The new year holiday is nine days this year, and if you take just four vacation days you get a whopping 16 consecutive days off. Many people take this rare opportunity to travel abroad, and so will we.

We will go to Sweden and my parents' for Christmas this year. It should be exciting for Ritsuko especially, as she's never celebrated Christmas in Sweden. It's not a religious holiday for us, but there should still be plenty of exotic customs and strange foods in her near future.

Kansai Airport
Departure concourse, Kansai airport, Japan

We fly Thai airlines from Osaka to Stockholm, so we change flights in Bangkok, their major hub. Which means we will not return directly home after Christmas, but go to Krabi in southern Thailand over the New Year. A few days with Thai food and swimming in the sea at a warm summer resort is exactly what we'll need after the cold, wet December weather and all that heavy Christmas food. I'm sure we can squeeze in a cooking class or some excursion too.

When you book early and all with the same airline you can stop at multiple places on the way, and side trips (such as Bangkok-Krabi) can often end up almost free. This is a good way to see new places if you have the time. Perhaps next time to Europe we could fly Air France and catch a weekend in Paris; or fly Emirates and visit Dubai for a couple of days.

Malay air flight attendants
Malay Air flight attendants, Arlanda, Sweden.

On the other hand, it's not the fastest route we could take between Osaka and Borlänge. Thai is a ways off, and we have a fairly long stop there on the way to Stockholm. When we leave our apartment it will take us 38 hours to arrive at my parents. Going via Helsinki would have cut it to no more than 25 hours or so.

It's Security. We're Secure.
Security detail, Charles de Gaulle airport, France.

The bags are packed, the gas is shut off and the Bonsamatic is filled up and running. We're off to the airport well before dawn tomorrow morning. Merry Christmas everyone!

Handy Box

We're away on our winter holidays. We've had too much Christmas food, visited relatives, seen my new nephew for the first time, and met and old, old friend for the first time in many years. Now we're packing our bags again, as we'll get on the train to Stockholm before we leave for Thailand and the beaches of Ao Nang in Krabi.

Meanwhile, here's a few shots I took earlier this year with my Mefag Handy Box. With no settings to worry about and no good way to see what you'll get, you can relax and have fun.

Grand Front Osaka
Grand Front Osaka is a new shopping center in Umeda. Lots of architecture but the same identical shops you find anywhere in the world. The flare, the colour cast and the bright reflection is all courtesy of the Handy Box. Who says you need an app to get cool effects?

Busy ghosts in the Umeda underground. There's only a single shutter speed, but you can take shots in low light by exposing multiple times. As a bonus, everything that moves gets a ghostly appearance.

JR Umeda Station
JR Umeda station. In good, indirect light the camera can take surprisingly accurate images.

Filing past
Filing past. Hit it with direct light and you are lucky to get anything at all from the uncoated single-element lens.

Yodogawa river.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Back again, after almost a week at OIST. It was very productive, despite a few unexpected issues¹. As good as teleconference systems have become, face-to-face meetings really are more effective. There is a lot of value in being able to just walk down the hall for a quick question or two.

When I arrived I had a few hours in Naha before catching the bus to Onna village and OIST. And as luck would have it the weather was was a sunny, balmy 25°, so I took a walk through Naha, had ice cream and just enjoyed the rare December summer day.

Dining and Mingle
Naha, and Okinawa, feel distinctly different from the rest of Japan. The climate is near-tropical, and the architecture and plant life all reflect that

As I walked down Kokusai street, ice cream in hand, I happened upon this gentleman lounging on a bench and enjoying the pleasant weather.

恩納村 — Onna "village" — is really a long, narrow region along the north-western coast of Okinawa island, and has several villages and settlements of various sizes. OIST itself sits on a hill-top overlooking the sea near Tancha. It's all pretty rural, with plenty of resort hotels but not a single business hotel in the area. The bus from Naha takes only a little over an hour, and costs about 1300 yen; not much different from my everyday commute in fact. The schedule is a little infrequent for commuting, though.

The seaside is one of the major attractions here, and even a mundane sunset feels amazing.

Okinawan grave, cut into the hillside. One aspect of Okinawan culture that is very different from mainland Japan.

A residential house in Tancha. The place gets really dark — at least compared to Osaka. On the positive side, you can actually see the stars on clear nights.

OIST has been around for some years by now, but the actual campus is still under construction. The architects seem to have made the most of the location, with buildings almost hanging over the hill-sides and with sweeping sea views from most offices and labs. it feels like you're perched on the edge of a towering cliff, even though it's actually on top of a gentle slope.

The stairwell and open hall at our department. Offices to the left, robot lab straight ahead. The wet labs are in another part of the building. Everything is quite open and spacious.

The open elevator shaft at the entrance to OIST. Most of the cost of building a place like this is used for things like infrastructure, load-bearing structures and so on. Good, bold design doesn't really add much to the total bill.

Sky Bridge
The walkway between labs.

Tourism is strongly seasonal here. The normal high season is summer of course. During the current low season many schools take advantage of the low hotel rates, so the airports are packed with grade and high school students going on school trips. And around February there's apparently a surge of graduating high-school and university students looking for some fun before they leave school.

A horde of school students in uniform at Naha airport, all milling about and making noise as adolescents are wont to do. The airport was completely filled with them, as was Kansai airport when I was leaving for Okinawa. Low group fares and plenty of available rooms make this season a perfect time for school trips.

But Okinawa is not just sun and bathing. Many people enjoy Okinawan food, with its own dishes and ingredients. It tends to be heavier on meat — pork, especially — than mainland Japanese food, and often with the signature goya vegetable. Ever since the end of the world war, canned pork in the form of US Spam or Danish Tulip, has also become a common ingredient.

Shige is a steak house just around the corner from Kafuu resort. Tasty and inexpensive, and the owner seems a nice guy. Meat, especially pork, seems much more common in Okinawa than in Japan in general. The green ring on the left is a slice of goya, by the way.

Spam Onigiri
Another Okinawan speciality is spam and eggs onigiri. I find the structure really interesting: with a normal onigiri you usually have the filling in the center of a closed rice ball, with the nori wrapped outside. Here the rice has been spread onto the nori, then folded like a Mexican taco or kuwapao around the spam slice and fried egg. Really a great way to make it.

#1 Pro-tip: if you plan to use a certain system, do check ahead of time that the system will actually be available for use.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sorakuen Garden

I'm on my way to Okinawa and OIST where I'll spend a few days working with the other people in my group. Internet meetings have been surprisingly effective, but sometimes you do need to sit down face to face and work directly with each other.

Meanwhile, here a few autumn pictures from the Sorakuen Garden in Kobe. I had no idea this place even existed, and we only stumbled onto it while on our way to dinner recently. It's a small oasis of peace and quiet close to the city center. Well worth the small admission fee to get away from the noise and bustle for a little while.

Autumn is here. My favourite time of year — yes, really. I like the sense of melancholy and quiet. I don't even mind the rain.

The Sorakuen garden pond. All the city noise outside is muted, and the garden turns mysterious and otherworldly at dusk.

The pond and a small tea house.

Sukiyaki is perfect winter food when it's cold and wet outside. You simmer sliced beef and vegetables in a hot pot, then dip the slices in beaten egg in your own bowl as you eat. It's simple to prepare, tastes great and works nicely for groups. This was at a dinner party by one of our relatives.

Friday, December 6, 2013

About Comments Around Here

As you may have noticed, I have turned off the Google+ integration of blog comments here on this blog.

The initial idea was good: bring together comments on posts here, and comments on G+ into one single thread. That way it didn't matter where people came to read this stuff, they'd all see all the comments. Having to register was frankly a small bonus to me; I used to spend a fair amount of time just removing spam around here.

However, it didn't really work out that way. In practice, comments were still split up; G+ posts had their own thread, while comments posted from here showed up in another. People still didn't see all comments made, and that rather defeated the original purpose.

Worse, if commenters here chose an option not to have their posts appear on G+ — most did, and it was sensible, all things considered — then not only did they not show up on G+, I didn't get any notification of any kind that anyone had posted a comment.

Also, I got feedback from a few people that they were commenting less or not at all because of this change.

So, from last week I've reverted this change. Comments are once again local to this blog only. Much better for everyone, I think.

There is one change: I do require all commenters to log in now; with a Google account, or through Open ID. I'm sick and tired of spam, and it has been a tremendous relief not to have to deal with it on a daily basis any longer.

Note that while anonymous comments are no more, you can still be pseudonymous. Make a throwaway account on Yahoo or wherever, and use OpenID to log in if you want. It's not a big hurdle, and it does keep a lot of the spam away.

Monday, December 2, 2013

JLPT. Yes, Again.

Another year, another attempt at the JLPT — Japanese Language Proficiency Test — Level N1. As always, it's held on the first Sunday in December.

JR Tenmangu station, Osaka, on my way to Daito and Osaka Sangyo university.

You get assigned to the test site, and it can vary from year to year. This year I took the test at the Osaka Sangyou University in Daito in northeastern Osaka. I took it here last year as well. It seems perhaps this site is only for N1 level tests as I didn't see any signs or anything for lower levels. Perhaps they've started to divide test sites by level. dd

Daito, Osaka.

Two things hit me this year. First, I often seem to have luck with the weather. I can remember only one single time it rained; all other years it's been beautiful autumn/winter weather with clear, high skies, autumn leaves and that fresh bite of cold in the air. It's a good time of year here in Kansai.

Daito, Osaka. Seems like a good place to live.

Suminodo station, Daito, Osaka. I can imagine the flash floods from the mountains can be quite interesting around spring.

Second, as far as I can remember I have always been assigned a seat on the left hand edge of a table. Never once in the middle (when there is a middle seat) and never on the right hand side. After eight tests (or is it nine now?), it's really fairly improbable — the odds are around 1 in 850 — to happen by chance¹.

Of course, the chance for it to happen to me is small, but with hundreds of thousands of test takers in a year and five levels to take, thousands of people take the test multiple times, so it's all but certain that it happens to someone. So it's unexpected, but not at all strange; there's no need to find an explanation other than random chance.

Osaka sangyo university.
Outside atrium at Osaka Sangyo University, and people are waiting to get inside and start the test. The weather was just perfect, and the area was really a lot warmer and cozier than it looks like here.

This one is taken with the Xperia Tablet Z, by the way; camera quality is not unimportant of course, but a good camera is not necessary (nor is it sufficient) for a decent picture.

The test itself? Well... The good news is that it did feel a bit easier than last year. The listening, especially, was fairly comprehensible to me; most of my problems were really more of the "which answer fits the situation better?", or "I lost focus and missed the beginning" kind, not "I don't understand what they're saying". I guess weekly meetings in Japanese, over a noisy low-fi internet connection, has really paid off.

The bad news: I got the ending time wrong by ten minutes for the first half, so I had to leave the last reading questions altogether, and just blindly mark something. The reading questions at the end account for a large part of the score so this is going to hurt me badly. I expect a score somewhere in the 80's point range, and I really need to have improved to manage a score in the mid-90's again.

On a positive note, I can see this as a build-up year, with more time to finish up the kanji and the N1 grammar, and I'll have an excuse for an autumn day-trip like this again next year.

No, this way
I will return, apparently. All the signs point to that.

#1 1 in 864, if I assume three sites had middle seats, and the other five had only end seats.