Thursday, December 23, 2010


We are all frail creatures on a small blue planet in a vast blackness. On a rare, rare night, the sky is dark like the universe yet offers us the unifying cantaloupe image of our planetary neighbor.

In Park Slope at 2:30 AM a few nights ago, the streets were spotted with awe-struck people, bodies tilting towards the heavens.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Last day in Japan; Kamakura

There is a joy to traveling with friends, and there is also a joy to traveling by yourself. I guess you could say I like traveling, one way or the other...

Hiro had plans with friends and family during the day and for dinner, so I decided to take a day trip to Kamakura. It was rainy in the morning, and the forecast called for more rain, but I wouldn't let that stop me. Kamakura is the home to many interesting historical places, and is about an hour from Tokyo on the train. I decided to go there with only enough cash on me for trainfare on the way back for some reason - subconsciously, I think I seek novel experiences, and if nothing else, needing money when I arrived would encourage me to explore as a local would, and interact with people.

And so it was. In Japan, only 711 stores, Citibank and HSBC allow withdrawals from foreign banks, and after talking (in English; my Japanese was never good) to a rickshaw driver, I found there was no such place in Kamakura. So, I tried going to another bank just to see if it would work, and it didn't, but a nice guard there pointed me towards the post office. His broken English directions were sufficient, and I found that, indeed, post offices in Japan allow withdrawals by foreigners. Good to know for future reference. Once again Japan proved itself a great place to travel given its polite and helpful citizenry.

Now that I was loaded, I had lunch at a random place off the main, tree-lined avenue that advertised Crocodile over rice. Crocodile tastes like smokey chicken, and I was happy with my meal. The restaurant was a small, out of the way place on the second floor of a small building away from the street. I spoke there with the waitress and the chef. My impression was that they were married - the waitress was Japanese, and the chef was from Bangladesh, and we spoke about travels around the World. He was a friendly soul, which is always nice to meet anywhere you go.

My first destination was The Great Buddha in Kamakura. It's one of the largest buddha statues in the world, and stands freely outdoors. Hiro said when he was a kid you could walk inside it, but it was shuttered in the back when I was there.

Great Buddha

The leaves on the trees had mostly fallen, but there was a still a brightness about the place.

To travel around Kamakura, I took the local Enoiden train line, which is an old electric train that has a fun nostalgia about it.

The anti-Shinkansen

I walked around the area near the train station near the Great Buddha, and found a pretty temple with a view of the ocean. Hase-dera is on a hill, and to greet temple goers in the front were Buddha statues that looked to be made of brightly colored plastic from a distance, but were in fact made of cardboard with bright lights shown upon them.

Blutu statue in front of the temple

Side view of Blutu statues

I hiked around the temple area, up a hill and back, taking in what had become another sunny day in Japan. Above, Kites flew around, perhaps picking up scraps tourists left behind, but for me, signaling the proximity of the ocean. I had been to the ocean now from both the West and the East!

The Pacific Ocean

I spent a few minutes at various artist shops, then made my way back to the Enoiden, where I rode it to nearly the last stop at Enoshima. Enoshima is an island just off the coast of Japan. I spent a few hours walking around there, seeing how the place catered to tourists, though it seemed out of season. The rain started to pick up, so opening the transparent plastic umbrella I'd been given at the hotel, I walked back to the train. Legions of people used these umbrellas in Tokyo, which is a constrant to New York, where the cheap umbrellas are black and opaque.

Enoshima through the rain at night

After a quick dinner back at the hotel, I met up with Hiro, Yoba, Tomo, and Yosuke for one last night on the town. We had good food, and good drinks one more time before Hiro and I had to head back to our hotel. Our flight the next morning was at 11 AM, so we had to get up early to make sure we gave ourselves enough time to pack and get to the airport for check-in.

One of the few negatives about Tokyo is that there is no public transportation after 12:30. There is an entire industry built around this - small beds at, say, Internet Cafes are available for the weary traveler who can't make it home. Given the number of people who drink, this is amounts to a fair number of people every Friday and Saturday at least. Hiro and I, walking with Yoba, eventually found a cab and headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, we took a bus with the words "Airport Limousine" on the side of it to Narita airport, and boarded our flight.

Goodbye Japan

Hello Long Island, Hello New York

I'll have another post or two about this trip to come. There are some pictures I didn't include anywhere before this, and some additional thoughts I have about Japan. Now it's off to my second day back at work. I hope the jet lag doesn't drag on me like yesterday!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Medidata Japan Visit; Night on the town in Tokyo

The following day I had plans to meet Bernie, Hiroshi, and Tong, coworkers from my company who were living in Japan. As it turned out, Bernie and Hiroshi had just recently moved to Japan, after living in the States for years. Hiro had a lunch with his coworkers also, so after a quick breakfast, we did our own thing. Of note at breakfast, I had a "Coffee Jelly" Starbucks Frappucino, which isn't available in the states. In Japan, many foods come in Jelly form, from sweet and sour candy jellies to delicate potato appetizer jellies to coffee jellies inside a frappucino. It was actually quite good - the gelatinous texture adding something different to the frappucino, and it added a nice taste to go with it.

I met Bernie one JR station away, and we walked to the office. There's around 35 or 40 people there, and space for more! I didn't realize how large our Japan office was.

Hello Medidata Japan!

I met Hiroshi and Tong there; all of the R&D people were sitting in the same section of the office. Unlike our development office near Union Square in NY, the office here was quite corporate, and destined for quiet, as the desks were quite low, and anyone speaking even moderately loudly could be heard by anyone else. One plus was that the Japan office had pretty, spacious conference rooms, though I'm definitely not one for unending meetings.

Bernie, Tong, and Hiroshi

Bernie, Tong and me

We went out to lunch and talked about life in Japan and a little about news at work, then we left. I said hello to a few other coworkers in the office and told them about my happy travels in Japan before Bernie walked me back to the train. More power to him - he said his Japanese is not the greatest, but he's getting by. The safety and security of the place is one big reason why he decided to move with his family from their former home in New Jersey.

Later, I met up with Hiro and his old friend Mash for dinner and drinks. Mash was a friend of Hiro's from high school; we'd be meeting up with other high school friends of his later. Mash pulled out all the stops in planning for the evening, and it was much appreciated. We had all sorts of small dishes for dinner at a fancy place - from mushrooms called Eringi to squid with Perilla, aka Japanese Basil, to sirloin and filet mignon. No holding back on the beer and sake too, of course!

As dinner ended, another old friend joined - a girl named Chako. Our next destination was a very impressive placed called Planetarium. It's a small, cozy bar with snazzy drinks (including a signature drink with a peach flavor made over dry ice), and true to its name, a fairly large digital projector that creates an image of the night sky on a domed roof above. Constellations are clearly visible, and it also has a "trip" mode where fantastical abstract patterns appear, giving it a very romantic feel. Nothing like being in awe of the universe and, perhaps, your date as well!

I couldn't get a picture of the night sky view, but I did get a picture of Hiro and Chako with a flash, though they were a bit surprised by the light:


After that, we met up with another of Hiro's old friends, Kuma, at another nice bar. We had the downstairs to ourselves, and ordered some appetizers and many more drinks. It was a pleasure to meet Chako, Kuma, and Mash, and we had a good time there as well.

Chako, Kuma, and Hiro at our second bar

Hiro, Kuma, Mash and I happy after many drinks

Around 1 or 2 in the morning, we finally headed back to our hotel. There was only one more day left in Japan! I would have to do what I could to make the most of it...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Autumn Train ride; Osaka

I'm back in NY! I will have some additional thoughts and reflections on my trip to Japan, but for now I want to describe the last few days in and around Tokyo.


We had another good onsen breakfast in the morning, then said goodbye to Dave. He had to head to Osaka early in the morning, where he would later fly back to Beijing. We had a little time to spend that day, so after leaving the onsen, we decided to head to Osaka for lunch.

A line within lines. In Japan, people stay within them

We took a local train to get there, and then took a subway to the downtown area. Osaka is a large Japanese city the likes of which we had not seen since Tokyo.

Fugu signs on a crowded street

It had a distinct feel even in just a few hours spent there. There was an edge to the people walking around; piercings were prevalent, and we did not feel the same kind of remarkable politeness that we had seen in different places in the previous week.

For lunch, we decided to go to a Teppanyaki restaurant. It's kind of like hibachi in the USA, except here there were no frills - just good food! Everything was good, including the plates of Takoyaki, which are like octopus dumplings with a mildly sweet sauce. Tasty.

Hiro and JaneAnn's crazily enjoyable lunchtime cigarette

After lunch, we walked around Osaka for a little while longer and headed towards the Shinkansen station, where we were bound for Tokyo. The trip was fast and easy, as all of them had been, and on the way, the foliage was slightly darker than when we had previously taken the same line.

That night, we met Koba and Masumi for drinks. We went to a bar around Shibuya that had a deal on champagne - for a very low price, we got a bottle of 2002 Dom Perignon, and some tasty desserts, which Hiro decided to pay for himself. Everything was enjoyable. Adding to the feast of the senses was a nice view of the Tokyo night from fairly high floor. It was fun outing, and a nice way to end the night.

Kampai (Cheers)!

The desserts came on a plate with powdered chocolate...

...and the chocolate powder was good enough to taste, and good enough to etch!

"Hiro" - yes, he wrote this himself!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Nara and our final onsen

We took the JR from Kyoto to get to Nara. There were tame deer to meet us in Nara just as on Miyajima, but here, the deer were out in large numbers. One of the first things we saw were dozens of deer galloping in a large circle in an open field. We spent some time at the Kasuga Shrine, where we were accompanied by thousands of school children.

Shrine Entrance

Many of the girls there very cutely said "hi!" to us as they passed, and were very happy when we responded, giggling and smiling. A few of them showed off their English skills by asking us "how are you?", or even "where are you from?" The kids seemed so happy to be outside, and were full of energy.

The Shrine itself was beautiful, but I found the surrounding area even more impressive.

Autumn House

All of this beautiful foliage in Japan! Even having gone to high school in Vermont, I was very impressed. Despite the number of people around, there was a distinct serenity to the place.

Deer grazing as the afternoon ends

Finally, we headed to our final onsen, which was on a hill. I use onsen here because the hotel itself advertised it, but in fact, once again, there was no natural hot springs to warm the outside bath. This made a huge difference in the bath experience, buuuut, we still had a wonderful traditional Japanese meal, full of delicious courses!

Initial place setting

Our meal consisted of mountain peach wine to start, followed by a crab/tofu appitizer, a small whole fish with bean dumpling and daikon, sashimi, shabu shabu with a miso paste sauce, nabe with chicken, tofu, and vegetables, crab leg tempura, rice with root vegetable, fruit, and Kuzumochi with soy sugar paste for dessert. Many things were very good, but the standouts were clearly the shabu shabu, the rice, which was subtly aromatic, and the sashimi, which was served in a bowl of ice! Fancy, fancy.


With plenty of beer to go along with the meal, we were a happy and stuffed bunch once again when we were done. But rather than sleep, which would have been quite easy to do, given it was our last night together, we decided to check out Nara before calling it a night.

Taking a cab into town, we found it almost empty, even at 11pm. We finally settled on a drink at a bar calling itself "scuba", which had a few ukuleles on display, but alas, they were out of tune and half broken, so Hiro and I couldn't play. Hiro had found a uke store previously on the trip; apparently the uke's warm, happy sounds is appreciated here too! We then headed to another place, a Western-themed bar, where I had a Leffe - my first non-Japanese beer of the trip. Without a doubt, I've had more Kirin and Asahi in a few weeks here than I've had in the rest of my life. Finally, we headed back to the hotel and got another night of well-earned sleep.

Kyoto - Fushimi Inari Taisha

The last full day of the week long trip around central and southern Japan was spent in Kyoto and Nara. After a relaxed morning, we took a train to Fushimi Inari Taisha. The area contains a huge number of Torii (orange gates similar to the famous one in Mikajima) and countless pathways through beautiful forest.

The protector spirit of this place is a Fox, which is adorned in orange throughout the park.

Fox Overseer

Hiro and JaneAnn along a pathway

We spent some time walking the many trails in the park. Along the main paths, there were a number of tourists, but there were also areas that were almost free of people. The placed seemed to have the perfect balance of Man and Nature: more Nature than Man, which made the point that Nature always wins in a relaxed, peaceful way.

Stone steps in the forest

As we walked through, we were passed a number of times by a man who was jogging. The pathways extend for miles, and there are many hills in the area, so he was in great shape, and I imagined his mind to be in great shape as well. The last time he jogged past, I managed to get a picture:

What a happy soul!

As we left, we picked up a local speciality - freshly-made rice cakes with various toppings, such as sugar, or soy. Crunchy and tasty!