The flat fish sizzled…

Breakfast at the ryokan was served in the small dining room. When we were provided an individual grill and an open flame we figured it wasn’t for ambiance – we started looking around at what the other Japanese guests were doing with it. Ah! Cooking the strange little flat fish!

As we nibbled at the dozen or so tiny bowls of surprises our tiny little flat fish sizzled and popped. After last nights fish fiasco we were hesitant to engage as we had no private exit strategy. I leaned over and whispered to Kaety, “When is it done?”, she whispered back, “I have no idea”. I pulled mine off and bit into its tiny little flat side. It was pretty good and skeleton minimal!

We texted Tom and asked how to deal with the rice and pickle course. He replied, ‘alternate bites’. We finished up and were ready for a sunny beautiful day in historic Kurashiki.

The Ryokan Meal: Amazing

The set meal the ryokan staff served us in our room was beautiful and intricate. All the little covered dishes and boxes were delightful and always gave you a sense of a gift to be opened. The food was over the top. Tiny little stacked items with nested items were all colorful and complementary. There were only a few challenging items that gave us pause. We both consider ourselves adventurous eaters but when confronted with the trifecta of skin, head, and skeleton there’s a go/no-go moment. For Kaety the no-go moment occurred after she swallowed. I got mine down but had to turn off all diagnostic systems in my mouth to get it down. Fortunately we had a room with a private toilet for Kaety to deal with her no-go fish. The only complexity after that was negotiating with the super smart toilet, who had no idea what she wanted. There was a lot of discussion about what button on the toilet control panel to push for ‘Yacked up fish’.

Aside from that dramatic moment the meal was excellent!

 

Naked mistakes in Kurashiki

We made arrangements to stay at a ryokan in the historic district of Kurashiki about an hour south of Kobe.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house – rice paper walls, tatami mat floors and futon. They serve your meals in your room and have a communal bath for the guests.

We had no idea what to expect. After a perceptually long transit to Kurashiki we found ourselves dumped along side an ancient looking cobbled roadway surround by old world Japan. Moments later we were sitting at out little wooden table in floor chairs in our traditional old world Japanese room. The smell of green grass mats and tea filled the air. We looked at each other across the table and started laughing. What a bizarre transition from the city to the ryokan.

We both felt super gross from a hot sweaty day of travel and wanted to bath but both of us were daunted by the unfamiliar bath territory we’d have to enter to get what we wanted. To prepare we read the instruction sheet that was left on our table.

I scoped out the bath facilities and came back to Kaety with a recon report. It looked pretty straight forward and no one was there. We could make our mistakes and not be naked at the same time.

By the time we mobilized and I made my way into the bath I noticed another pair of slippers outside the door. Oh well.

Naked mistakes aren’t like other mistakes. They seem a lot more high stakes for some reason.

I managed to get the knobs and dials figured out on the shower mechanism, and I got myself scrunched down to sit on the tiny stool.

Once you get rinsed off you soak in the tub. The Japanese guy sharing the space with me got into the tub ahead of me. I settled in and was starting to relax in the water and tune out when he started up a conversation. We fumbled back and forth for a while playing word lawn darts with each other. I only understood 1 out of 3 things he said and while my racing brain sought comprehension of the missing words I’d leave a staring blank space in the conversation. He was doing the same with me. We did have a moment where he smiled and said, “Japanese bathroom culture is different huh?”. I nodded and laughed.

Naked language barrier isn’t any better than clothed language barrier.

 

Goodbye Kobe

We said goodbye to Kobe and the MTS/Ocean conference to head off for some personal time.

We also said goodbye to the hotel breakfast buffet which had been a delightful amalgam of cultural culinary surprises every morning.

Near the train station we discovered a covered mall that had a dazzling array of shops and interesting mixed marketing messages.

We navigated our way to shin-Kobe station where we picked up the Shinkansen bullet train. Super cool. This train station smelled way different than all the other train stations we’d been frequenting. I suspect the different odor profile was the unique smell of speed.

Watching the landscape go by from the train was a trip – you could see sudden shifts in flavors of neighborhoods, both in architecture and farming spaces. Beautiful place!

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Italian dinner in Kobe

We met up for with Tom for dinner in Kobe after the conference. We hugged him and immediately peppered him with all the questions we hadn’t even been aware we’d been saving up, “What’s that yellow thing we keep tripping on?”

He took us up the hill into an old neighborhood that was a fascinating blend of colonial western and Japanese architecture to seek Italian food.

We were a bit ashamed to admit how nice it was to have someone navigate the restaurant like a native.

We talked careers, kids, culture, family, religion, politics and the nitty gritty of kanji for hours! The food was impeccable and the wine was abundant. It was great seeing him and listening to him tell the story of how he experiences his identity living between two cultures.

Kobe train – rush hour crush

We ended up on the metro train at about 5:30, which seemed to be a high capacity time for travel.

When the train arrived it was packed…like not one more person could possible squeeze into the train car packed. Yet the 15 people we were in line with thought otherwise – and we wadded in with them. We crammed into a standing mass of humanity. My body was pressed hard up against four other people – one of them I realized a short time later was completely asleep, his limp body held up by the press of humanity surrounding him.

We made another stop and more people crammed in. One woman’s face was mooshed against one of the windows.

Kaety and I were pressed together with one arm trapped up holding the bar and one arm trapped at our sides. We were laughing at the ludicrous state we were in.

For a culture that doesn’t do public displays of affection I think they were pressure valving that whole state of reserve on their trains. I’m a hugger but I’ve never been in that state of intimate contact with so many strangers before in my life.

The process of getting my phone out of my pocket to snap a photo inadvertently groped at least three people.

Wow.

Kobe IKEA

Kaety’s suitcase blew its zipper upon arrival in Japan. We spotted an IKEA on the way from the airport on the local metro line and today executed a foray out to buy a new suitcase.

We’ve spent a lot of time at IKEA’s so we were super curious what variations would be unique to a Japanese IKEA.

Come to find out…not much at all. The furniture and home items were the same. The food offerings were about the same but with a few rice and seafood based items we don’t see in the states. Meatballs, potatoes and lingon berry sauce were still front and center.

I did wonder how the almost non-sensical fake Swedish names were being translated into Japanese.

We saw Thomas Fast later that day – he reviewed the photos and reported that the Japanese characters were essentially spelling out phonetic characters to build the exact same name. So an IKEA ‘Fado’ is still a ‘Fado’ in Japan.

Japanese grocery store

Kaety has taught me that a great way to get a glimpse of another country’s inner workings is to visit their grocery stores.

I was envious of the produce section – I love to cook and I saw things that we have little to no access to in the US…and certainly Newport. She always wants to see the fish selection – how’s it priced, packaged, and what’s selling.

Much of the packaging was familiar but written in Japanese. Fun!

Kobe Marine Technology Conference

We wanted to attend the session ‘Blue Economies of India’ this morning but the day 2 jetlag syndrome was hitting us both pretty hard.

Sessions today included: ‘Plankton Image Classification via Multi-class Imbalanced Learning’, ‘Fish recognition from a vessel camera using deep convolutional neural network and data augmentation’, and evocatively titled ‘Application of deep learning to underwater invasion warning system’.

The emphasis on deep ocean resource extraction has surprised me, although as I spent more time observing who was selling and buying in the room I got less surprised and started asking questions like, “So…how do your environmental monitoring sensors support underwater mining?”, well, “If you are going to select and prep an ocean floor site for your automated mining operation you are going to need to know everything about it.”. Of course you are!

The exhibition was super interesting – the number of ROV and AUV products that have appeared in the last couple of years was amazing. Their applications for research were familiar, and while their legacy rested in research a lot of their marketing was obviously targeted to mining and resource detection.

Lots of sea floor mapping technologies, and array sensors were being represented. I heard from many salesman who noticed my OSU badge, “Hey! We sold you a bunch of sensor packets for the OOI How are they working?”. Not my department.

The international companies selling large mining ships were fascinating. I had no idea.

Large engineered ‘smart’ aquaculture pens were represented by several manufacturers. I had to ask what made them smart. I should have know that ‘smart’ meant automated: Feeding, harvesting, and parameter failure detection.

Once I got more discerning about my ogling and started talking to people I realized how many attendees were small technology development companies trying to figure out how to break into the ‘ocean business’. Once they stopped posturing I was able to have some really great conversations and answer some good questions – mostly about how to become a partner on a federal funded project.

A product a lot of people were talking about was ‘Open ROV’. I looked them up. Two guys in a garage who wanted to treasure hunt but couldn’t afford it. They made their own ROV system. Rick Spinrad mentioned them in his plenary talk. Pretty cool. I got the distinct sense that the big ROV manufacturers had mixed feelings about them.

 

Nara and the big Buddha

Our MTS sessions ended at 3:30pm and the Big Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara closed at 5:30. We executed a metro gamble hoping we could choose all the rapid transit lines in spite of a steep language barrier and win the race against time. There was a short period of time as the clock neared 4:30 that we thought we might lose…but we didn’t! We dashed out of the Nara station and into a waiting cab who drove the ancient city’s backroads like he was on fire.

We made it with 52 minutes of Buddha appreciation time left.

It was incredible!

The largest bronze buddha was housed in one of the world’s largest wood structures. I thought it would be big, but it was mind boggling big.

The Japanese fieldtrip school groups were swarming all over the place. The atmosphere that the chattering kids generated made the place even more magical.

We walked into the enormous structure and were struck by a very peacefully confrontational Buddha.

The energy in the very old well-used temple was powerful. It punched right into me.

When we visit Hawaii we always visit the Byodo-in temple and watch how visitors deal with the confrontational space. This temple had the same affect on people.

We sat and watched. We walked around and around the enormous space absorbing more and more details.

The beets rang and the doors started to close – We felt light and charged full of energy as we left. Once we got outside into the grounds we realized that we were surrounded by deer. A lot of deer all incredibly tame and looking for an offering of special deer food wafers that the park sold.

We watched a lot of deer bite people’s butts as their backs were turned, looking for the wafers in a back pocket. Amazing and bizarre.

We stayed later than we anticipated – enjoying walking the grounds. As it started to get dark and we both were hit by a delayed wave of jet lag we realized that all the public transportation and taxis had disappeared.

We started walking the deserted beautiful narrow streets. And we waked and walked. Just as our collective wills to live were about to leave us we stumbled into a Japanese Octoberfest…in May.

The beer was authentic and they had some sausage-like items but that was the extent of the traditional German-like items. The rest of the menu was pretty creative.

We paused and rejuvenated in the festival energy and then found a pile of taxis awaiting the wave of drunk Octoberfest revelers.

The taxi dumped us in front of the train station and we were shortly on our way back to Kobe…until something happened on the rails and everything we were doing came to a halt.

We got pushed out into a station to figure it out. We were so tired and hungry that we just stood staring at all the people moving past us with whom we couldn’t communicate. Our problem went past pointing and gesturing. It was an interesting feeling to be trapped like that at the end of the rope without communication skills.

We looked at signs. We looked at our phones. Our blood sugar had gone to zero. We spun around in circles and finally we got a tip from an English speaking tourist helper who directed us to another railway. This railway had minimal English cues and came with a guy yelling non-stop into a bull horn. We purchased tickets and got on the train hoping it was going in the direction of our hotel. Is was…but made stops at stations built 50 feet from each other. We crawled our way back to Kobe in a metro hell.

We hit our hotel at 10:30 pm and dashed into a restaurant trying to close for the night and ate like starved dogs. It had been hard, but Todai-Ji was worth it!