The Year of The Rabbit
Happy new year everyone!
Merry Christmas! Long time no see!
Things have been quiet around here, but I have been busy writing — homework, in Japanese, for my teachers' eyes only. Every couple of weeks I write a short essay on something, anything, just to work on my skills. Writing is probably the best way to improve your grasp of a language, but it does take forever and a half to finish anything, leaving me with little energy to write anything here as well.
Christmas light festival in Sapporo.
Meanwhile I've also become active on Mastodon. It is a distributed social media system that can be used as (but is not limited to be) a sort-of replacement to Twitter. I tried it once before but gave it up. Due to certain shenanigans at Twitter lately there's a lot more people and more activity there now, and I find myself sticking with it.
My address is @firstname.lastname@example.org. I mostly follow other people but I also tend to post shorter comments that just don't fit well in a blog like this. Another reason I post here less nowadays I guess.
Toya train station.
In other news, Japan has had another round of "Go To Travel!", a travel promotion system to help the hospitality industry recover (and promote bad English slogans, but I digress). You get a heavy discount on your travel costs, and vouchers to spend on site.
The promotion is well designed; at check-in the hotel hands you 3000 yen of vouchers per person and night to spend. But you have to use them by the next day so you really have to spend them locally on food and drink, gifts and so on, not take the vouchers home to pay for groceries. It makes sure more of the money is spent in local travel destinations, not just the major cities.
Lake Toya, a crater lake in Hokkaido. To the right is an island in the center of the lake. In the far distance you can see Mt Yotei, another volcano, and already snow-covered even though we had no snow in Toya yet.
The lake village is a strip of resort hotels along the shore, then a few streets worth of houses behind them. Shame about the view, but I guess it pays the bills.
A cozy cafe with good coffee.
We took the opportunity to stay a night in Sapporo, then two nights at Ko No Sumika, a ryokan by Lake Toya in Hokkaido, about as remote and free of people as you can find without ending up camping or something — COVID is still very much a thing on one hand; but we do want our creature comforts on the other.
First place I've stayed at with coffee filters and an actual coffee grinder. Made the morning coffee before breakfast all the more enjoyable.
We had a traditional dinner the second evening.
It wasn't cold enough for snow, but the views were still very beautiful, and the whole trip really relaxing. Even the train ride along the coast is an event with lots of views - if you go, do take the train, not a shuttle bus.
A view from the rooftop onsen. Life could be worse.
It's been a very pleasant mini-holiday. Three nights is perfect - long enough to experience a place, but not so long that you get bored, or have to make arrangements for your plants at home or anything like that. We're already planning another one for next year.
Mt. Yotei at sunrise
How did the coffee plant pruning turn out? Exceedingly well!
This was the plant right after cutting the trunk:
The coffee plant right after cutting the trunk.
And this is the plant after one month:
The plant almost exactly one month later.
OK, so the camera and the light are both better in the second picture. But it's still fair to say cutting that trunk has done the plant a world of good. There's lots of new, dense growth and little to no leaf browning.
That last may be in part because I'm more restrictive with watering; a Reddit post suggested a common cause was overwatering. I now wait until it seems dried out, then way for one more day before I completely drench the pot. It certainly seems to work.
The cuttings didn't fare nearly as well:
Yeah, that didn't work.
No idea what went wrong. I still want a second plant so I may try again in spring. Will need to first look up a better way to do it — this time I just dipped the cuttings in growth hormone then pushed them into the soil. I also tried putting one in water first, but it never formed roots either. Anybody know how to take proper cuttings, let me know.
Some of you may remember my coffee plant? I first got it in 2016, from the UCC Coffee Museum in Kobe. It came with us to Okinawa, where it thrived in the hot, humid climate. A few years ago it even gave me enough coffee cherries that I could brew a cup of my own homegrown coffee.
But as I noted above, the regular typhoons and other weather have been a bit harsh on it. Over time it's become decidedly lanky, with long branches and sparse foliage. This is what it looked like yesterday:
Life's been a bit rough for it lately. Long branches that catch the wind so it loses leaves every time we get a typhoon coming through. When most leaves are lost the branch dies. You get a ball of foliage at the top of a janky, unstable trunk.
Sorry about the picture, by the way; it's a cellphone, and we have another plant right behind it (that we also cut at the same time, for much the same reasons).
Actual coffee farms cut down their plants every five years or so. And they do it in part to avoid the plant growing too tall and lanky; a shorter, denser plant produces more coffee and is easier to harvest. So, this is what my plant looks like now:
The coffee plant cut down. It already had this new "side branch" coming out of the base, so I cut it above that point. Hopefully this will let it handle the Okinawan weather better, and grow a thicker, more stable trunk this time around.
I know it's the right thing to do, but it's still nerve-wracking. I have no idea if it will survive this. So, to give it a bit more of a chance I took some cuttings as well:
Six cuttings. Let's see if any of them survive. If all of them do, I have no idea what to actually do with all of them; our new balcony is large, but not so large we can keep half a dozen coffee plants around.
If we're unlucky, they will all die. If we're lucky, the main plant will survive, and perhaps one or two of the cuttings will take root. If we're too lucky, they will all thrive and I'll have more plants than I need or want. Not a bad problem to have; by next spring we'll know.
In November last year me and Ritsuko are out on a walk in Naha on a rainy Saturday when we run across an Italian restaurant called Pastida. We're looking for a place to have lunch, so we go inside.
It's an interesting place. They serve lunch only — in fact, they're renting the space from an izakaya that opens at night. And they serve only one single dish, pasta Bolognese. No side dishes, no salads; if you don't feel like Bolognese, you need to go somewhere else.
It was very tasty; a real Bolognese with bits of meat simmered in a wine sauce, fresh pasta and topped with lots of Parmesan cheese. This was my lunch:
I've been back in Osaka for my summer holidays, and Ritsuko happened to see a magazine article about a pasta place in Kansai run by a young couple. It was a small place serving only lunch, and serving only a single dish: Spaghetti Bolognese. Not just the concept, but the picture looked very familiar.
And when you search online there's a lot of these restaurants around. Here's a picture from Google Maps:
The pasta, the cheese, the plating, and yes, even the plate is almost exactly the same. Hmmm.
It turns out these restaurants are way cooler than I thought. They are not chain restaurants, but they all obviously get their pasta from the same place. That place is Bigoli (also a name for the type of pasta they use). This company makes a single thing: fresh pasta and Bolognese sauce. But what they sell is a restaurant in a box.
You buy a license from them, and you get everything you need: the food, the plates and cutlery, printed menus, promotional material and so on. Yes, you still need to find a good location and come up with a name, and you still need a license to serve food and learn how to prepare this properly.
This seems to me to be a pretty good way for somebody to dip their toes in the food service business; to figure out if they really want to do this sort of thing long term. Starting any kind of business is a big financial risk and lot of work; at least here you start out without having to figure out what to serve on top of all the rest.
If you look at the list of shops they have, there's single-dish restaurants like above. But there's also cafes and bars that add this as their one proper food dish. A low-workload way to add a proper food item to their menu.
Two reasons I don't feel cheated: First, they don't hide this. When you actually look a the menu, they clearly print that the food comes from Bigoli. In fact, they make it a point of pride. Second, the Bolognese really is quite delicious. They make this one dish and they really do make it well. You can even order online if you want to try it at home.
Chain restaurants — fast food, especially — get a bad reputation because they serve low quality or unhealthy food, not because the food has been prepared beforehand. "Ghost kitchens" (multiple online order-only "restaurants" all served from one physical kitchen) try to fool you and trick you into thinking you're getting something you really are not.
This is doing neither. It is a healthy amount of good quality food. And they're open about it having originally been prepared elsewhere. This is fine by me.
Ginowan has a large fireworks show every year. It's normally in April, but due to you-know-what-virus it was postponed to July this year.
Good thing: we can see the area right from the balcony. So we set up with dinner (homemade rice bowls) snacks, folding chairs and camera with a tripod.
As it happened, the first typhoon of the season passed by just the day before. The weather was still really bad the same morning, but they insisted it would go ahead as planned. The rain let up literally minutes before it was due to start — a testament to just how good short-term weather forecasts are these days.
The fireworks happen near Tropical Beach and is sponsored by JAL, and by the resort hotel next to it. The view from the hotel is probably pretty spectacular.
I elected to take just long-exposure shots this time around. Typically 4-10 seconds per shot. You treat the fireworks much like you'd treat a strobe; you control the brightness with your sensitivity and aperture, not shutter speed.
The display was designed by Junko Koshino, a clothing designer. It did feel more focused on creating interesting patterns than on just big explosions. And the long exposures really bring that forward, I think. These fans look as good as a still picture as they did live.
Trees with leaves, I think
Cool overlapping patterns
A dandelion fluffball and an orchid. Welcome to summer!
We've moved house. From Naha in the south we've moved about 10km north to Ginowan. From a fun but really old apartment, to a new, fresh place. From a backstreet in the center of a city, to a residential area by the sea.
Ginowan at night. Not a dense city, exactly, but not rural either.
Our entire existence right now is one of cardboard boxes and chaos. We're slowly digging ourselves out from the pile of stuff we've accumulated over the years. My computer is still packed away, so I've got no real pictures to show.
Why move? One reason: the Naha rental apartment was expensive and aging badly, and the landlord wasn't willing to do much more than the minimum necessary. For instance, the water pressure was so low that you'd lose the hot water in the shower if you turned on the tap in the kitchen at the same time. That was always fun in winter when I was showering after work while Ritsuko was making dinner.
Another reason: Our new place is 10km closer to my place of work than the old. But as those 10km were through Naha and Urasoe — very busy during rush hour — that makes my commute about 25-30 minutes shorter in the morning, and 30-60 minutes shorter in the evening. I now drive the 30km to work in only 45 minutes each morning, giving me lots more free time each day.
We also get a nice views, and we're now close to Chatan and Rycom; the Convention Center mall and the seaside park is right down the road; and the Parco City shopping center is only minutes away.
On the down-side, we lose walking access to the Naha city center, with its restaurants and shops. And we're more car dependent than before; while our new place lets us have two cars, we also need two cars, a mixed blessing at best. Time will tell if we'll get used to it or not.
So I start a post about something. I write half of it, then life gets in the way, I focus on other things and I forget about the post. A few weeks pass by and I can't pick it up again because I no longer really remember the point of writing it.
But it's still sitting there, silently waiting for me to finish it. The guilt I feel for not doing it stops me from writing anything else - which is ridiculous of course. I'm the only one who even knows what I was trying to write in the first place.
So forget about that. We've been to Osaka, both over New Year and Golden Week. Here's a few pictures, selected not because they mean anything, but just because I like them:
The old Osaka City Hall on Nakanoshima. Today it's a conference center, and the surrounding park is a popular place for festivals and events. The new Osaka City Hall is a grey concrete box just off to the right.
Umeda JR station in Osaka.
Vending machines — is there anything they can't sell? This one sells COVID antigene tests for 1900 yen, less than 50 meters from home.
Namba, Osaka. This is obviously a story in the making, and I really want to know what was going on and how it turned out.
Kawachi-Nagano is less than half an hour away from Namba by train, but as quiet and peaceful as you'd ever want. Feels like going 30 years back in time, in a very good way. A friend of ours works at a ryokan in the area, so we went there for a delicious lunch.
The pinball hall in Big Step, Amermura. Almost a hundred machines, from really old to the newest releases. Well worth a visit if you've ever enjoyed pinball. Even more worth it if you've never done so. Bring 100 yen coins!
Lilo Coffee Roasters is currently my favorite coffee place in Osaka. They do some excellent specialty coffee. You can get your choice of beans brewed almost any way you want, and buy a bag home.
A quiet evening sit down outside the shop. Minamisenba.
You never really see your neighborhood until you leave it for a while. Minamisenba.
Life is full of choices. If you have the choice, I do recommend that you not get too close to a fire prevention cabinet in the company parking garage and scratch the rear of your car:
It looks so small, doesn't it? The rear scratch in the plastic panel is apparently easy to fix; just a bit of paint. The front one is in a metal panel and is dented as well as scratched. That got expensive.
Now, you might feel the urge to try this, just to find out what it's like. I can assure you that you're not missing out on anything. They need to remove the rear panels (and light fixtures), beat out the dent and repaint the area. Meanwhile I'm driving a rental car to work.
Insurance covers the rental car but our deductible is too high to cover the repair. Why is it so high? Because we didn't plan to break the car, that's why.
This is a partial list of things we could have spent the money on instead:
All of which would have been more fun or more useful than putting a scratch on the car.
So, don't scratch your car. Get the toothpicks instead.
Like very year, Ritsuko managed to find me something a little special for Valentine's Day. As you probably know, in Japan it's split into two holidays (probably so shops can sell more stuff ^_^) : on Valentine's Day women give a present to men; and on White Day a month later men reciprocate with a gift to women.
A box of chocolates. And a camera!
A box of chocolates. Specifically, a metal box in the shape of a medium-format TLR, containing chocolates packaged like 35mm film. Really cool, and the chocolate is delicious too. Now, should I keep the metal box to keep stuff in; or do I convert it to a pinhole camera? Both are tempting — the box would be perfect to store film-related stuff; but just imagine taking an actual picture with this! Decisions, decisions...
Omicron is spreading like wildfire in Japan as elsewhere, and Okinawa is hit by far the hardest. This is in no small part due to the American military bases, and the lax-to-nonexistent procedures they have had for entering the country from the US.
COVID cases per day in Okinawa prefecture. That vertical wall at the right edge is not reassuring...
Okinawa is also the poorest prefecture in Japan, and has the smallest number of hospital beds per capita ("hospital bed" means not just the bed, but equipment, staff and so on). Even though the number of cases have been — and remain — low by international standards, there is a real risk that the medical system will be overwhelmed by the number of cases. If that happens, people that need emergency care would start getting turned away. That would be very bad.
Among other measures, the prefecture has now requested that businesses implement work from home policies to reduce the spread. And as OIST is really good about following regulations, and is taking COVID very seriously (my bosses' boss, Mary Collins, is a professor in immunology; the person in charge at OIST for this situation; and really good at getting things done), we are back to working from home again from today and for the next two weeks at least.
Naha harbor, and typical Okinawan winter weather.
I'm not going to dwell on the larger picture here — lots of other people have a better grasp of things than I do anyway — so I just want to jot down some notes on what has been working for me in this situation. I'll also add some random pictures because why not.
The greatest thing about working from home, for me, is my commute. Or, rather, the lack of one. Normally I spend 1 hour and 10 minutes driving to work, and 1 hour and 15-45 minutes going home. Now I spend about 5 seconds walking from the living room to my desk in the backroom. That's about 2.5 hours of my life I get back every single day.
Today I woke up at 6:30 as usual. I went for an hour-long run to Omoromachi and back, had a relaxed breakfast, and I still had enough time to do a bit of cleaning up and start a load of laundry before I logged in to start my day.
It's also really convenient to be at home of course. I can make good coffee and make a real lunch, and eat together with Ritsuko when she's at home. She can use the car when she needs to. And I can do stuff that isn't really possible when working at OIST, such as playing music while I work, or noodling on my ukulele while thinking.
The worst thing is the lack of face to face meetings. We have a good group of people at SCDA, and working together with them is part of the fun. But my job also involves a lot of interaction with the researchers. I teach courses on using HPC systems and how to program cluster computers. I also have daily meetings to help them get started on the cluster, give advice about how to best run things, and work with them to improve their code to run faster or better on our systems. This is the best part of this job and a large reason I took this job in the first place.
But that's of course no longer happening. I do use Zoom for one-on-one meetings and classes but it's a pale imitation of the real thing. It's doable, and it sort of works, but it's nowhere near as frictionless, social and satisfying as meeting in person. I miss that.
Fishing is insanely popular here. I've never tried it myself; I worry that I'd get hooked (sic) and have to deal with fresh fish every weekend.
Technically, working from home works OK. I have an improvised standing desk and a wooden high stool to sit on, but this setup was never intended for using all day long every day. If working from home became a regular weekly thing I would need to get a real desk and a proper chair.
I connect my work laptop to my monitor. It's a largish 32" 4K LG monitor that's perfect for my desktop. The laptop, with its pokey integrated GPU does struggle a bit with the size; it can only drive the monitor at 30Hz, and while fractional scaling (at 150%) works surprisingly well on the Gnome desktop the combined result is a slight but noticeable delay or hesitancy to everything. For work I only use an email client, a browser and a pile of terminals open to remote machines, so it's not a big issue.
The other technical problem is our network. We do have fiber at home that's technically 1GB/s, but as we live in a mixed building with lots of businesses, and in the middle of the city, the connection is horribly oversubscribed in practice. We sometimes get no more than 20-30Mb/s and even less at night. It's doable but not ideal, especially when I need to talk with people over Zoom.
My ideal for Work From Home would be to do it at my own discretion about 1-2 times a week (you know, when we're not in the midst of a raging pandemic). That would give me a break from my commute, give me some alone time to work — for all that I like people, I'm basically an introvert — and still get the frequent personal connections that makes this job so rewarding.
I'd have a proper desk, perhaps one that can be raised and lowered as needed, and a real desk chair. We'd have an internet connection that sucks a little less. That would make for a nearly optimal experience.