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September 29, 2006

Buddhas

Heading back to Tokyo, we stopped off for a day at an interesting site known for a series of Buddha statues carved into the hillsides back in the 10th-13th centuries. It was a bit out of the way, but well worth the excursion. Find out the details by looking through our photos and reading the descriptions Click Here. Be sure to click on the images to enlarge them and read the full captions. Also, the captions of the ceremony have a link to a short video clip we recorded, which gives a good feel for the sites and sounds of the action.

September 27, 2006

South to Yakushima

After launch, we had a few days to explore. After reading through our guidebook for a little while, we settled on heading down to Yakushima, a tiny island 2.5 hours by hydrofoil ferry south of Kyushu (the southernmost of the 4 largest Japanese islands -- See map. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its amazing cedar trees.

You can follow our adventures, step-by-step, by looking through our photos. Click here.

September 23, 2006

Liftoff!

The launch was a complete success. Watch the experience as it unfolded by looking through our photos. Click Here.

In particular, you also might want to watch a short video clip we captured of the launch.

In summary, it was really amazing. L originally was expecting it to be a let down -- "travel all this way to a remote part of southern Japan for a few seconds of boom and fizzle." However, we were pleasantly surprised by how amazing the launch was to observe. It's hard to describe the sense of awe and excitement of watching, hearing, and feeling the rocket launch (yes, the boom resonated in our bodies, even over a mile from the launch pad).

September 18, 2006

Launch Preview

We're heading all the way to the southern tip of Japan's main islands to watch the satellite launch (only about 1.5 hour flight from Tokyo). We hope you'll be able to watch the launch live on the web (at 2 pm this Friday, California time). This web page will give you a preview of what to expect during the launch sequence: http://www.isas.ac.jp/e/enterp/rockets/vehicles/m-v/05.shtml. Be sure to click on the "Flight Sequence CG Movie" link on the right -- it gives a view that is almost better than reality!

Disaster Message Board: Typhoon Shanshan

There was a big typhoon (same as a hurricane, but in the Pacific) that hit southern Japan this weekend. It was a long way away from us and we had a lot of rain, but no damage. The southern island of Kyushu was hardest hit -- the Japanese news programs were devoted 100% last night to showing downed power lines and trees, mudslides, and one very unfortunate train that was completely blown off its tracks (in the rail yard with no passengers, we think). We'll be heading to Kyushu for the launch on Friday, but the word is that the satellite and rocket are safe and ready to launch as planned.

The small disaster gave me a chance to check out the "disaster notification message board," which allows me to notify friends or family quickly after a disaster that I am OK. Basically, I use my cell phone to fill out a web form with my status ("I'm fine" or "I'm at home" or "I'm hurt", etc...). Friends and family can use the web to check on me.

English information about the Disaster Message Board is here:
http://www.vodafone.jp/scripts/english/disaster_message/index.jsp.

I think you can use this link here to directly check my status:
http://dengon.vodafone.ne.jp/pc-e2.jsp?m=08034485752
But, if that doesn't work, just do a web search for Vodafone Japan Disaster Message Board. Note that the message board is only active during times of disaster. Try it out...

A gate to an urban oasis

A gate to an urban oasis

Got my cell phone working and have been able to start sending pictures from the built in camera. Hree is the first one. It is just a small gate near a Buddhist temple that we passed along the street after visiting the furniture rental store. It's surrounded by modern skyscrapers with upscale western condos.

September 17, 2006

Getting Around: Why GPS is important

Some of you have written requesting our address. I assume this is so that you can send us care packages of American treats, but maybe some of you want to drop in on us as surprise visitors. While we welcome such surprises (and will soon have a sofa bed and/or extra futon to accommodate you), you might want to do some advance preparation on how to find someone once you know their address in Japan. To start, let's take a look at our new address:

Uehara 2-42-3, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo-to, Japan

Let's break that down. First, the Japanese address starts from biggest entity (Japan) and zooms down into the actual house. The English version, goes somewhat the opposite way. We live in the city of Shibuya which is in Tokyo prefecture (like a state in the US). Our neighborhood is called Uehara. Shibuya has about 200,000 people, and I'd guess that Uehara has 10,000-20,000 people in it. Each neighborhood seems to have about one train station that serves it (ours is Yoyogi Uehara), so it's fairly easy to find a given neighborhood. From within a neighborhood, you have to find a person's district (chome). That's also not too hard because there are few districts in each neighborhood and the district number is usually a number between 1 and 5. Ours is 2. Next, you have to find the block number. This is where it gets really tricky. Our block, 42, is surrounded by blocks 13, 14, 21, 41, 40, 2, and 46 -- in that order! If you're trying to find a pattern in that sequence, I don't think you should hire a mathematician but rather a historian (mathematicians are welcome to prove me wrong :-). You really need a map to find block numbers. We have a really good bilingual atlas of Tokyo that helps us with that. Finding a house within a block simply requires circling the block until you hit your target.

You might argue that navigating to an address in America is just as crazy -- we have all these street names and they rarely have any order. This is true, but the difference is that street names have connectivity. You can always construct a series of directions by saying "travel north on A street until you hit 1st street, and then turn right." With Japanese addresses, there is no good way to guide a person to a particular unknown location. Instead, Japanese usually rely on cute maps to indicate their location. On web sites, these are written in the Japanese katakana alphabet and read as "akusesu mapu" (access map). For example, here is an Access Map of L's workplace. It looks pretty straightforward. From the train station, take a left, then a right at the second stop light and go about three blocks. Now, look at an actual, to-scale, non-distorted map of the same region. You might notice that the streets are not in a simple grid pattern and that the access map conspicuously left off about 100 other streets along the way. Navigating might be easier using these maps if we were more proficient at reading Japanese, but conversations with locals here indicates that they get just as turned around as we do.

I hope this begins to explain why we invested in the GPS phone.

Matt, Unwired: The Keitai Revolution

Our new apartment has no furniture, no phone line, and no internet as of yet. While the first one is not a real problem (after all, you sleep on the floor in Japanese rooms anyways), the last two are serious disruptions. With L's satellite launch just a few days away, she's doing things like teleconferences that start at 2 AM Japan-time and last for more than 4 hours, and it's really not fun to have to go into work to do these -- especially when work is 1.5 hours away and the trains stop running shortly after midnight.

In order to get wired, we are now unwired. You've undoubtedly heard rumors about Japanese cell phones ("keitai" here). They are mostly true -- pretty much everyone uses them everywhere to read email, chat, or play games. I see people tapping away on an instant message WHILE riding their bike down the sidewalk towards me -- and this is with old men and not just teenagers! They seem to use their keitai for everything -- except talking. This is rarely done, especially on trains where etiquette strictly forbids it. Portions of the train are "no keitai" zones where cell phones must be switched off, and the rest of the cars have signs indicating that people should refrain from talking on their phones -- and they darn well better be on vibrate mode! The few times I've actually witnessed a phone conversation on the train, I've seen the people cover their mouths and whisper into the phone. I did this once when L called me while I was on the train and was kind of fun -- I felt like I had some sort of secret to share.

When I went to purchase my own keitai, I was presented with a sea of options. While there were different models that had different features and came in different colors, there was surprisingly little variation in the overall size and style of the phones. Guided by a very patient Japanese-only-speaking salesman, I made my selection for the combined digital camera/web browser/MP3 player/GPS guidance system (more about this part in the next posting). Oh, yes, it also makes phone calls.

As I mentioned before, the signing of contracts seems to be an important process in Japan. However, unlike our lease, I was on my own for the cell phone contract -- no Japanese translation. I've gotta run now, but I'll share more about it later...

September 12, 2006

Solar-B satellite gearing up for launch

XRT.jpg

The satellite currently known as "Solar-B" (the next one after Solar-A) gets prepped for launch. L will help operate the satellite once it is in orbit where it will take pictures of the sun.

Solar-B is currently in southern Japan on the island of Kyushu. Click on the photo to view a larger version where you can see the nose cone of the rocket (white part) being placed over the satellite by a crane (blue grid stuff). From the size of the person, you can see that the satellite is about the size of a small bus. Launch is September 23 (Japan time) and we'll be heading down to watch the launch. We are very excited! Also, they will christen the satellite with a new, more exciting name after launch. They are holding a competition for the name with the deadline coming in just a few days, so let us know if you have any suggestions!

Check the launch countdown here. You'll be able to watch the launch live by clicking on the words Click here for Live Launch Coverage. We'll tell you how it goes in a few weeks!

Contract Day: A Japanese apartment we couldn't refuse

Today was "contract day" and we officially signed the lease to our Japanese apartment. We'll give you a tour of the place in a future entry, but right now I wanted to share some highlights of the lease process in Japan. Click below to find out more...

Finding an apartment was actually rather easy. A few months ago, L simply went to the neighborhood we wanted to live and visited several real estate agents. A few didn't speak English, a few had "reservations" about renting to foreigners, and a few were very helpful. One actually showed her several apartments and kept in contact with us via email as we prepared to make our move to Japan. We met with him the day after I arrived in Japan, visited a few more places, and selected the one we liked best.

That's when the fun began. Foreigners require a Japanese host to cosign the rental agreement. Our official host was happy to support us, but is in Uchinoura on the southern island of Kyushu preparing for the launch of the Solar-B satellite on which L is devoting her time in Japan (T-11 days, as of this writing). Overnight mail works well here in Japan, but unfortunately he can't just sign the paperwork but must place his official seal on the document. His special seal for such documents is at his home in Tokyo. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but somehow his seal magically appeared on our documents after only a few days wait.

It was time to set up "contract day" where we sign the lease and can move into the new apartment. We were told to bring the security deposit, first two months rent, real estate agent fee, and special "key money" (a standarized monetary "gift" to the landlord to thank them for allowing you to move in, typically 1-3 months rent worth). The challenge: bring cash. We feverishly prepared for several days, withdrawing our daily maximum from the ATM until we accumulated a HUGE wad of bills (equivalent to nearly $10,000). We carried this to the real estate office where two real estate agents and one of L's Japanese colleagues walked us through the lease in English. They took us into the dimly lit back office of the agency and we handed over the cash in what must have looked like a scene from a Japanese mob movie.

Leases in any language have some entertaining portions. Back in Berkeley, I fondly recall the prohibition of using a BBQ inside the apartment. In Japan, the regulations were not nearly as humerous as the translations and examples given to us to explain the rules. For example:

  • We are not to play musical instruments unless we are good at them. If we are professional guitar players, we can play as much as we want. But for us common folks, no guitar.
  • Can we put pictures on the wall? A very long discussion between the real estate agents ensued including a debate involving a demonstration using pins and razor blades on the wall of their office. Translation: It depends on the size. Are the pictures small or large? "Medium", we replied.
  • Regular wear and tear will be covered by the landlord, but if we have a fight and punch a hole through the wall, we must pay for the repair.
  • There was something having to do with scented candles, but I don't think we ever got the translation exactly right...

After the signing, we walked to the apartment and the owner of the apartment met us and placed his seal on the document, making it official! He also invited us into his house for a brief tour -- I'm told this is a rare treat and a great honor. He and his wife are about 70 years old and speak very little English. They have a beautiful Japanese style home and seem to be as excited about having foreigners live in their apartment as we are about living in a Japanese-style apartment. We hope it will be a true cross-cultural exchange.

September 10, 2006

About Machida City

Where to begin?!? Since everything here is so new to me, my first few blog entries will probably be kind of scattered. There is just so much to write about that I don't exactly know where to begin.

Machida is about an hour outside of the core of Tokyo. Much like the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, there is a lot of development between, but not nearly so dense (or, at least that's how it feels from the train). We're staying here because it's two train stops away from Loraine's job and there are more hotels here than at that location. Plus, Machida is a pretty exciting city. It has a vigorous shopping district centered around the train stations. Wandering around the streets is an amazing experience because everything looks so different with Japanese writing, lots of bright colors, and lots of people on narrow streets (many without cars). There are a few big department stores that are very similar to Macy's -- you probably wouldn't be able to recognize the difference if you walked in the door except that they also have a pet department on the ground floor (including cute puppies and kittens for sale). There are also some smaller specialty stores in the area that are uniquely Japanese like a futon shop and furniture stores. Perhaps most notable is that it seems like one out of every three storefronts is for a restaurant. They seem to fall in two general categories: Japanese (sushi, udon, and more) and American (burger joints, pizza, bagels). Of course, the Japanese have very interesting twists on old American favorites (hint: buy mayonnaise stock -- they seem to enjoy adding it to everything). There will definitely be more entries on food, as selecting menu items has consumed large amounts of our emotional energy in these first few days. Today, for example, I decided not to switch meals with Loraine even though I disliked my own. The reason: because at least I knew I didn't like mine, and I didn't have the energy to sample yet another new thing. Tonight's culinary adventure: we went for a safe "Italian" restaurant. I had the spaghetti with cod ova topped by a raw egg. Not bad. Then we walked past the sushi shop that had mariachi music playing with the lyrics, "o-sushi, sushi-sushi, o-sushi, enjoy sushi" (you really had to be there). Yes indeed, this place is an adventure.

September 6, 2006

Aliens 2

I am happy to report that we are now officially "Aliens." After a few weeks in separate time zones, we finally converged on our new home, Tokyo. It's crazy to think that I agreed to move to a new country that I have never even visited before when less than a year ago I had never lived outside the San Francisco Bay Area at any point in my life. So, thus begins our new adventure...

My parents dropped me off at the airport shuttle and my brother and new sister-in-law were there to give me a real send off. I will definitely miss them over the next few months. The flight from San Francisco was pretty easy, considering it's 10.5 hour duration. My dad donated his pair of noise canceling headphones to my journey and I bought a new inflatable neck pillow with fleece lining while waiting at the airport. The former helped as I watched several of the dozen or so on-demand movies available during the flight, and the latter helped me sleep for long hours between. Another favorite part of the in-flight entertainment was the airplane's built in video camera that allows you to see directly below the airplane from the seat-back video screens -- making every seat a window seat, now. This was especially interesting during take off and landing when you could watch the wheels hit the ground -- a little bit scary at first, but a fascinating view. We skirted along the coastline of North America, across the Aleutian Islands, and down the other side, always surprisingly close to land considering that we were crossing the world's largest ocean. Crazy spherical geometry. I particularly enjoyed my first view of the Aleutian Islands, some of which were very large. They were vivid and green at this time of year with fantastic braided streams and ponds. Cloud cover obscured things so that I didn't actually see any of the volcanoes -- just coastlines.

Landing was straightforward. L has been here twice in the last few months, so she gave me directions about how to get to Machida where she would meet me. The hardest part of the journey was the 2.5 hour bus ride at the end when I was so close to seeing her, but needed to cross one of the world's densest cities before actually being there. I stepped off the bus in the most crowded bus depot I had ever seen and sat and waited for her for a few minutes until she materialized from within the masses of people.

September 4, 2006

Puttin' on the Ritz...

There is no better way to spend one's last night in the USA than a celebration. In this case, I was lucky enough to attend the wedding of my friends Judy and Ben in San Francisco. The ceremony was in a really unique spot -- an outdoor courtyard with trees and flowers nestled among the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco. It was a perfect setting giving the feeling of an oasis of peace among the excitement of the city. After the rabbi with a great sense of humor led them through their vows, the party began. It was a unique combination of black tie and a downhome country music band. But, that was the perfect combination of whimsy and meaning to reflect the happy couple. There was a lot of great dancing punctuated by some entertaining toasts about the bride and groom. I caught up with some old friends from college and met a few new ones. It was loads of fun, but I eventually had to head home to get ready for my flight the next morning.