Monday, July 25, 2016

Scouting

No not scouting as in young people in matching scarves. We're going to Naha tomorrow to look for a) an apartment; and b) a car. Surprisingly, the car is the more difficult part of the process.

We'll rent an apartment of course.  We need something fairly quickly so we can start moving next month. We don't need perfection, just something good enough. After all, if we realize the apartment is too small, the area is inconvenient or something, we can take our time and move to a better suited place next year or so.

We have a couple of candidate apartments, and appointments with the real estate agents. In fact, we're looking at the most promising place tomorrow right after we arrive. Hopefully we'll decide before the end of the week, and if we're lucky we could get access to our choice by the start of August. In that case it's possible we could actually get our things to Naha even before I start work.


The car is more difficult. We've realized that we do need a car in Okinawa, no matter what. But what kind? Neither of us has ever owned a car before. We've been asking around among friends and relatives, and the range of advice we get is absolutely ridiculous. Most of it is frankly just a reflection on their own interests, and not really relevant to our situation.

"Mercedes is great. Get one".  Good advice if you are wealthy and retired. Not so much for us.

"50km on heavily trafficked mountain roads is easy on an electric bicycle!" Ehhmm, no.

"You need a 2l engine at least. With a turbo." If cars are your hobby perhaps.


One thing everybody agreed on: Don't get a kei car. They're small Japan-specific cars with severely limited size and engine power. They're popular on Okinawa for instance. But they're really only good for short-distance travel. On highways they're too unsafe and too slow.

Another common opinion was that if we get a small car, get a new one. They're inexpensive, so fuel and maintenance is a big part of the cost.  The total cost of ownership won't change much whether you get a new or a used one, and give you greater peace of mind. If we'd get a larger car, on the other hand, a used one is better value.

The sum of the most sensible advise we got is: Consider your everyday needs only. Decide how much you're willing to spend. Then, pick the car that will give you the most satisfaction, not just the most value.

We'll pretty much follow that, I think. But of course, I like technology and Ritsuko is very particular about design, so to maximise satisfaction I suspect we'll get something a little more showy than we strictly need.

Monday, July 11, 2016

New Job, and New Career


After a long application process, I've got a new job! I will work at the Scientific Computing and Data Analysis Section at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, where I will support, train and help researchers in high-performance computing and programming.



OIST entrance tunnel.

Over the past ten years or so I've spent a lot of my time using clusters and supercomputers, writing code, and supporting team members with less computing experience than myself. I've also tutored graduate students and post-docs in the use of specific software and neuroscience modelling. And I've come to realize that the computing aspects and teaching are much more interesting to me than the research itself.

The Scientific Computing section at OIST is very well equipped, with two clusters — Sango is on the top-500 supercomputer list — and many research units at OIST make use of computational methods in one way or another. Computing has become a general tool, just like mathematics and statistics, for many research fields, but most researchers don't really have formal training in the field.

Here I can support hundreds of researchers and be far more effective promoting science than when I spent my time on my own projects. Also, this promises to be much more varied and challenging, with different research fields and a wide range of issues, from teaching beginner-level programming to optimizing cutting-edge software.



We'll probably live in Naha and I will commute by car from there. Ritsuko doesn't drive so it's not really feasible for us to live close to OIST, and we'd need a car in any case.

We will leave Osaka and move to Okinawa. But we have family here in Osaka and Ritsuko has things to take care of here, so she will return regularly. We'll probably also celebrate new year and other holidays here. It's surprisingly cheap and quick to fly between Osaka and Okinawa — cheaper than the train between Osaka and Tokyo — so it's very doable.


I'll start in September. Right now we're very busy with paperwork, trying to find a place to live, and figuring out the details of the move. I need to work through a pile of things left on my to-do list since my last project, and of course I need to prepare for the new job itself. Busy, busy...



Sunset near OIST.



Saturday, July 9, 2016

Black And White

I haven't really done much photography the past year or so. And what pictures I have taken have mostly sat unprocessed. My motivation has been returning lately, so I've been processing old shots.

Here's a selection of black and white film shots from the past year or so. Do click for larger views, the last one especially.


JR Osaka station in Umeda.



Mikoshi. Shinsaibashi, Osaka.




Guardman. Umeda Sky building, Osaka.



Shokudo in Akashi.




Misty windows. Hanshin station, Umeda.


Lightbulb.



Tokyo University.



Framed. Tokyo subway.



Tokyo University.



Ohatsu temple. Umeda, Osaka.


Relax. Osaka.


Every way is good. Marunouchi line, Tokyo.


Glittering nights. Umeda, Osaka.




Nakanoshima, Osaka. My favourite view.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Bonsai Has a New Friend

You might remember that I've got a bonsai of sorts. I still have no idea what I'm doing, but it's been healthy and growing, so it's not a complete disaster. An actual bonsai enthusiast would surely be shaking their head at the (complete lack of) styling, and I know I've been doing lots of things wrong, but I'm happy with it anyway.


Coffee to the left, black pine to the right. I guess that's fairly obvious.


But now Bonsai has a new friend: Coffee! Yes, I now have a coffee plant. I've actually had it since February, when it was this tiny little thing with three small leaves, but I wanted to see if it would survive before I said anything. It seems to thrive, so I had nothing to worry about.

Here in Osaka I need to keep it indoors near a window in winter, and out on the balcony in summer. Either way it doesn't want direct sunlight; coffee is a bush, basically, living in the shadow of larger trees. It'll gradually grow to about 1.5 meters, and if all goes well it'll bloom with white flowers in about four years.

It can self-pollinate, so if you help it with that it will set clusters of berries in the fall. By the next spring the berries will turn red and ripen. Pick the berries, take the seeds in the center, dry the seeds, roast them, grind them and brew yourself a cup of homegrown coffee. On coffee plantations you cut down the plant after harvest and the cycle starts again, with a new harvest in another four years.

If, that is, everything goes well. Even if you manage to get coffee beans the exact growing conditions are very important for the taste, so you're unlikely to get a good cup of coffee or anything, but that's of course not the point. And even if you fail, it's still a pleasant houseplant with beautiful large, shiny dark-green leaves.



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.