Lauren In Tokyo

Monday, August 30, 2004

Late meeting

One thing about working here in Japan is that meetings with other continents are usually not a big problem. Meetings with the U.S. are conducted in the mornings, and meetings with Europe are conducted in the afternoons.

Tomorrow, however, there will be a 3-way telephone conference between all three offices. What this means for me is that I expect to be up at 3 in the morning either tonight or tomorrow night just to listen in on this thing.

It's funny. This Japanese office actually doesn't have anything to do with the project in question.

On second thought, it's not really funny at all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Cheap lunch

The best kind of lunch is obviously bento. Sometimes, though, making bento becomes too much work (so my wife told me). The solution, I've found is not to run to the Lawson next door and shell out 600 or 700 yen just for something to eat. Better and cheaper than that is to cook some rice and pack it and some microwaveable curry as lunch. The total price comes out to a little over 100 yen which beats the prices at the convenience store hands down.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Walking along the Yoro Keikoku

This weekend, the wife and I went out for a drive in Chiba and decided to take a stroll along the Yoro Keikoku. There is a walkway built along the edge of the river at the bottom of the ravine that leads from the Mizutsuki temple to Awamata falls. Stairs lead down from either end.

The weather here has been cooling off for the past couple days, so the stroll along the river was very enjoyable. I had my Nikon with me and shot the remainder of the B&W film in the body as well as a good deal of color film. I need to get those developed as soon as possible before I forget.

Lots of areas exist along the ravine floor for picnicking and recreational fishing. There were several groups of people barbecuing and having a good time. A few kids were knee deep in the river with nets trying to catch the baby trout that lived there. The fish were really tiny, so I doubt they'd make a good meal.

It was really nice to get out of Tokyo again, and the Yoro Keikoku is about as far removed from city life as you can imagine. The ravine itself is not spectacular like the Grand Canyon or anything, it is a small respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo living.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Driving trip to Fukui

A couple weeks ago I drove out with my wife to Fukui prefecture to visit some family that I haven't seen for a while. We left our apartment around 8:30pm and spent an hour and a half in traffic trying to get through Tokyo. The Shutoko is the Tokyo intra-city highway system that links several major highways into Tokyo. Travelling from Highway 7 from Chiba through the Outer C1 to the Shinjuku Line and finally to the entrance of the Chuo Line takes about an hour and a half on a good day. The total distance is no more than 30 or so kilometers, though.

Once out of the Shutoko and onto the Chuo highway, we sped along at a good pace and finally arrived in Matusmoto around 1:00 in the morning. It took us about half an hour of driving around the area to find the hotel as it was hidden away pretty well. The front desk at our hotel was open 24 hours so checking in was a piece of cake.

After breakfast we headed out down Highway 19. Highway 19 is famous for being one of the main highways used by the travelling bakufu on their way to Tokyo. In the olden days, Japan was ruled by warlords who themselves were ruled by the shogun living in Edo (Tokyo). In order to keep the local warlords weak, the shogun demanded a yearly visit of each warlord to Tokyo. This meant a large group including the warlord and his entourage needed to find their way down to Tokyo and of course this meant a lot of business for inns and restaurants along the way. Naturally, this would also serve the shogun's purpose by depleting the warlords' treasuries. Highway 19, being one of the primary arteries for the travelling samurai is full of scenic areas and quaint towns that popped up in response to the demand for accomodations. Largely unchanged, several of these "post towns" can still be visited and, though many have become tourist traps, some still retain their authenticity.

We had planned on going through the mountains via a local road route, we hadn't really taken a good look at the map beforehand and realized upon reaching the Chuo highway that we were about 4 hours away from the mountain route. Taking that as a hint, we just hopped on the highway and drove straight to Fukui.

The Chuo line splits around Maibara and we took the north-bound route along the Hokuriku line. Around 6:00 in the evening we arrived at Takefu, our final destination.

Takefu is my mother's hometown. A small rural town that has grown quite a bit since the last time I was there 10 or 15 years ago, Takefu is slowly becoming a city of its own. Small mountains spring up on the Western side, providing a barrier from the cold weather of the Japan Sea. On the Eastern side, the Japan Alps rise high into the sky holding much of the moisture blown in from the Asian continent. The result is an area much like Seattle during the summer and a snow-covered wilderness in the winter. The primary occupation of the neighbors is farming and each family owns or rents some plot of land to grow their own rice.

My uncle, his hair graying quite a bit, is still as lively as ever. My aunt has hardly changed at all since I visited 15 years ago. The first night, we ate sukiyaki made with vegetables grown by the neighbors. The vegetables were delivered because the neighbors had heard that I was coming back and were excited to see me again. Unfortunately I was not able to meet many of them due to the shortness of the trip. Fresh vegetables like those are simply not available in Tokyo. The squash was juicy, the eggplant was sweet, and the cucumbers were overflowing with water. An hour later and a liter of beer heavier, we were all very merry.

The next morning, we all headed up to my grandfather's gravesite to pay respects. The family gravesite is a ten minute hike up a nearby mountain. A grove clears on the left side of the path and a set of logs are set into the ground to act as a set of stairs leading up to the gravestones. We set our buckets and flowers down and cleaned the stones a bit. I went with my uncle down to the river a short jog away to refill the vases with water and brought the fresh water back up to my wife and aunt who were busy cutting the flowers. We put the flowers in the vases, lit candles for each of the three family gravestones, and paid our respects. Afterwards, we collected our things and headed back home.

We talked about what we wanted to do while we were visiting, and we decided that since the day was half over, it made sense to pick only a couple things and enjoy those rather than do a whole bunch of things and not really have the time to enjoy them. We decided that we'd go to Eiheiji temple first and then go see the Tojimbo rock formations along the Fukui coastline.

I was scolded at the temple for trying to take a picture of a monk. Apparently being in pictures may result in an increase in their vanity, so they aren't to be photographed. I swear I didn't do it, the guy just walked into my frame. Then I was told not to take pictures of the ceiling which was composed of hundreds of tiles each with a painting of a meaningful thing. Flash photography is not allowed in there because it results in the fading of the paintings. However, my camera has no built-in flash and I was not carrying my SB-23 with me, so there was really no reason for the scolding.

The rest of the temple was your standard temple fare. If you've been to one temple, you've been to them all. A high-traffic tourist attraction like Eiheiji really doesn't offer anything new that can't be had elsewhere for less parking fees. There is a zen camp that they offer which lasts a few days and you live in the temple and study and practice zen while there. Short on time (and on interest), we decided to forego that and head over to Tojimbo.

Side note: Not all temples and shrines are the same. In Aomori prefecture, my wife and I drove up Mt. Iwaki and visited a small shrine that was very interesting. We were allowed to hike around the area, visit the inside of the sanctuary, and shoot pictures however we saw fit. Afterwards we had some tea at an outdoor wooden table with the sanctuary guardian and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. I don't think that this is a problem of Shinto vs. Buddhist religion. I have a feeling that Eiheiji is just such a well-worn tourist site that whatever interesting thing there once was about it has long worn thin. Temples and shrines off the beaten path are much less crowded, more serene, and the custodians of them are more friendly to visitors.

After having slept very little the day before, my uncle took the keys and drove us all to Tojimbo. I slept the whole way. Tojimbo is a basalt outcropping along the Japanese coast of the Japan Sea. There is no rope or rail to prevent someone from plunging to their death. Lacking what others call common sense, I immediately went right over to the edge of the 60-foot cliff and snapped a bunch of pictures. This freaked everyone out as they all were sure I'd fall into the gorge and kill myself. Apparently Tojimbo is a popular spot for suicide attempts. So much so that the government has installed a telephone booth that can be used for free near the edge of the cliff so that someone thinking to commit suicide can call home or a suicide hotline in order to think twice about what they are doing. The booth does not allow free long-distance calls. I checked.

We drove back along the coast and my wife watched the horizon intensely for a glimpse of North Korea. The area is famous for being a particularly successful kidnapping grounds of Japanese by North Korean spies. Despite the close proximity of North Korea to this area, it is still far enough away to not be visible from shore. That didn't stop me from claiming to see the communist country every five minutes or so. After she caught on, the game wasn't so interesting anymore, especially as how she would hit me from behind every time I said it.

That evening, we returned home and enjoyed another home-cooked meal and copious amounts of wine and beer. My uncle brought out his old Nikomat EL and presented it to me as a gift. Despite being in storage for the last 10 years, everything still worked, even the batteries had a charge. I need to take it somewhere to have it cleaned up. The years have left it moldy and in need of a thorough scrubbing and re-lubing. I plan to pick up a 28mm or 35mm lens for it once it is cleaned up and use it as my second camera. I just have to find a place that will clean it...

We left the next day around noon, eating lunch with my aunt and uncle and then heading north along the Hokuriku highway, we made our way up to Joetsu. From Joetsu, we headed south along the Kanetsu expressway back to Tokyo. Our first thought was to make it all the way back to the Chuo line, but our experience with that highway has always been bad, so we decided to try the Gaikan (Outer Ring) highway which encircles Tokyo. We made it home by 10:00pm that evening, but I'm sure that if we had taken the Chuo that we would not have made it home until past midnight.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Fad dieting

My wife is currently on the Japanese "Reset Diet". From where I stand, it doesn't seem to be much more than another fad diet, but in just the few days she's been on it she's lost a considerable amount of weight.

The book is only available in Japanese, so I only know what she's told me about it.

The big thing is the first 1 week phase which I guess is analogous to the 2 week Induction phase of Atkins. No rice, bread, or pasta during the first week. Also, fruits should be limited to twice a week except for grapefruits which should be eaten every morning. No milk, no potatos, and most of all no oil when cooking.

Apparently, after the first week you lose about 5 kg and then you can return to eating normally if you feel that you've lost enough. Personally, this sounds like a recipe for rebound, but I guess I'm not the one with a book deal.

Every morning my wife and I share a grapefruit. (To be honest, I like the grapefruits more than I expected to so this might continue even after the diet ends.) The pans are slowly becoming worn out because when cooking without oil the pan ceases to be non-stick. The refrigerator is now packed with vegetables and meat.

I've seen many diets and this one just confuses me. Most of the time, a diet will have a specific theme and the diet is designed around that theme. There are really only two types of diets. Ketogenic and Starvation.

Ketogenic diets like Atkins and Sugar Busters rely on the dieter to stop taking in excessive amounts of carbohydrates which forces the body to turn to alternative fuel sources, namely fat. Since the body prefers to use carbohydrates as its primary energy source, removing carbs (or burning all carb-originated calories) forces the body to switch to consuming energy from fat. It works extremely quickly and because the dieter is consuming high-fat foods the dieter rarely experiences hunger. The drawbacks include increased wear on kidneys, gout, and a change in body odor, breath, and urine odor because of the release of ketones. The other major drawback is that the dieter may never eat carbohydrate-rich foods like potatos, breads, pasta, and rice in any significant quantity without immediately and dramatically suffering weight rebound.

Starvation is the other major type of diet. It rests on the concept of a basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is the number of calories burned within a 24 hour period. The goal is to consume less calories than are burned, thereby forcing the body to tap into the stored energy reserves of fat in order to maintain the BMR. Two means available to achieve this are through caloric restriction and increased energy expenditure. Caloric restriction means cutting back on high-calorie foods, especially simple carbohydrates and fatty meats. Increased energy expenditure is achieved by either exercising to increase the amount of calories spent or through other (frequently unsafe) means like ingesting chemicals (caffeine, Ma Huang, etc) to increase the BMR. Typically a starvation diet will use a combination of caloric restriction and exercise to achieve weight loss. Starvation diets have been shown to increase life span in lab rats and presumably in humans. Exercise has the additional benefit of increasing cardiovascular fitness and strength. The main drawback is that the body attempts to adapt to the unbalanced caloric intake/usage by lowering the BMR. This provides a negative feedback loop where the dieter must cut calories even further to make up for the lower BMR. In addition, the lower BMR remains even after the diet ends, so weight regain is easier and loss is harder in subsequent dieting. Other drawbacks include the dieter feeling hungry frequently, and the the enormous effort and willpower to remain on the diet.

The two diets are not interchangeable, and certainly can't be mixed and matched. Consuming even a small amount of carbohydrates on the ketogenic diet results in the disturbance and termination of the ketogenic process. Eating calorie-rich meat may push a starvation dieter over the maximum allowable calories for a day.

The Reset Diet seems to be a starvation diet, except that there doesn't seem to be any starvation involved. It takes piecemeal from both diet types and mixes them together. It is unclear how or why it works. The biggest thing is obviously the elimination of breads and cereals (rice, etc) which is a direct lift from the anti-carb side. However, flours may be used for thickeners when cooking. This does not make sense as the flours would actually have a lower glycemic index than whole grains like rice or complex carbohydrates like pasta. Coffee is allowed, contrary to any ketogenic diet guide. Caffeine halts the ketogenic process and acts as an inhibitor to ketosis. Grapefruits, long rumored to increase "fat burning", are eaten every morning for breakfast in order to jumpstart the body's BMR. Dinner is interesting in that any amount of food that can fit on a plate may be consumed, the caveat is that no second helpings are allowed.

It is obviously not a ketogenic diet because the amount of carbohydrates consumed is through the roof. On the other hand, the caloric intake does not seem to be dramatically reduced and my wife doesn't seem hungry. She has already lost about 2.6 kg since starting the diet a few days ago. Surely most of that is water weight, but it is not clear the reason why the weight is going away. The diet claims that weight loss of about 5 kg in the first week is typical, but provides no science to explain the weight loss, only anecdotal evidence of the author's friends losing that much that quickly.

Does anyone have any insight into this diet, pro or con?

Shochu, it does a body bad

So last night everyone from work went out to a small sushi place to celebrate a couple guys' return from Sweden. They were over there on business for about 4 months and have finally returned.

It is typical for Japanese to drink heavily at these dinners, and being the youngest employee here, I am encouraged to partake in that tradition. Today, my body is telling me that this tradition may not be the best idea.

During the commute, I experienced some mild motion sickness, so I got off the train a couple times to wait out the nausea. I also found out that I only have 32 yen in my wallet, so I couldn't even buy a drink from a vending machine. I managed to get some free water at a platform coffee shop, which was nice.

I'm still a fairly hung over and my head hurts and my stomach feels like crap. Staring at this computer screen isn't helping none.

I'd like to go home early, but I came in pretty late, as it is, so I will probably just keep sitting here with my head down until 6:30.


Thursday, August 05, 2004

Riding the train

Like most people living in Tokyo, I take the train to and from work every day. It's just a part of life here in the big city where owning a car is a luxury (which I indulge in) and traffic is terrible enough as it is to make taking the train with all its crowds and inconveniences the only viable possibility for the daily commute.

It takes me about 10 or 12 minutes on my bicycle to get to the station where I have a reserved parking space. Add another 35-40 minutes for the actual train ride to the station near my office. And throw in another 7-8 minutes for the walk from the station to the office door and I'm already up to almost an hour for my morning commute. I used to think that commuting all the way to Shinjuku was bad back when I was working all the way across town, but that commute also took an hour. Working closer to the Tokyo Station side of Tokyo hasn't brought the reduction in commute times as I had expected.

Since this office has flextime, I try to schedule my train rides a little after the morning rush. If I can catch the 9:19 train, I don't even have to transfer at Tokyo Station to make it to the office on time. But if I catch the next train at 9:29, it's a mad dash to make the transfer at Tokyo to the only other train to my station. Today I missed the 9:19 train. Again. I've missed it this whole week and have made the jog from the underground bowels of Tokyo Station to the sweltering above-ground tracks every single day. With all this running around, I'm very disappointed that my ever-growing midsection is still ever-growing.

I wish there were a time in the evening that could be considered a 'rush hour', but it seems more like the millions upon millions of people packed into the train cars between 7:30 and 8:45 every morning just spread themselves out from 4:30 until midnight so that the evening trains are at a constant capacity at any time.

If you want to know, the mornings are definitely preferable to the evening commute. In the morning, everyone still smells fine and everyone is nearly in their right mind. The evening brings out the crazies, drunks, and people who really need a shower. Whether it is some soused salaryman threatening to show us all his dinner or a tin-foil loon freaking out about cell phone radiation eating his brain, the evening train ride is not a pleasant place. Add to this that many Japanese take their baths at night and do not bathe in the morning, the smell of some folks is pretty powerful. And it is always wafting my way.

The trains do run on time, though. Only very infrequently am I delayed because an accident has occurred. Occasionally, somebody will fall on the tracks or a suspicious package will be found (and later discovered to be someone's briefcase and nothing more), and these things will throw a wrench in my commute. However, that's about it when it comes to delays.

Trains here, in general, are clean, safe places that get me to where I need to go. I just wish there were an easier way to get to the middle of the city besides them.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004


Hi, I'm Lauren.

I'm a poor software engineer transferred out to Japan in March of 2002 and then left to fend for myself when the Japanese branch was closed.

I live in a small suburb of Tokyo with my wife (since July 2001) in a large apartment by Tokyo standards. It's not very convenient, but it was necessary after living in comparatively palatial quarters back in Seattle, WA.

I'm a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Languages and Linguistics with a degree in Japanese which, I think, gave someone the idea that sending me out here would be a good idea. I haven't regretted moving, but to say that I was severely unprepared for life in Japan is an understatement. Maybe I should have paid more attention in school, but that's all water under the bridge. I am getting a prolonged crash course in Japanese language and culture and I don't have much say in the matter.

After graduating back in 1997, I headed west to the rain-soaked lakes of Seattle. It was either Seattle or Silicon Valley, and it was a Seattle company that called first.

I spent three and a half years working in Seattle for a small, then large, then small again embedded systems integration company. It paid well, the people were great, and I was able to hone my skills to a sharp point.

Then around the end of 2001, a couple openings in the Japanese branch opened up and I was asked if I would like to make the transfer over to the Tokyo office. I said yes and in March of 2002, I was over here to provide technical expertise to the nascent QA team.

That's how I ended up over here.

I love getting out of the city. My wife and I bought a car last Christmas and have put several thousand miles on it already. We hope to put many more thousands of miles on it before we finally leave here.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm also very excited by photography. My photos are absolute garbage most of the time and I lack what artists call 'vision'. Still, it takes my mind off of the crowds and bad manners of Tokyo-ites and gives me an excuse to get out of the house every now and then.

I don't write much, so I don't know the first thing about this blogging. Let's just hope it grows into something interesting.