Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016)

I thought Snow White's story ended with happily ever after. Indeed it did. We know how her story began. But we never were provided a clue about the other characters in her story. What, for instance, was the story behind the huntsman's anger against the Evil Queen? This was explored in the prequel and sequel of sorts entitled The Huntsman: Winter's War.

Apparently, the Evil Queen had an equally evil sister who became the Ice Queen. She recruited children to be part of her army, turning their hearts to ice so that they won't feel the pain of losing their loved ones. Included in her army were the huntsman and his future wife. They were punished into thinking that the other one died or abandoned them.

Moving forward to after the Evil Queen was defeated, Snow White had fallen ill because of the Magic Mirror. Apparently, it wasn't destroyed in the first movie. Instead, it had been taken into hiding but got lost along the way. The huntsman and his wife had to join forces to bring the Mirror back. One thing comes after the other and eventually the Mirror was destroyed. The Evil Queen was defeated once again and her sister too. Until, of course, the next movie... if there's another one coming out.

To me, the movie was quite forced. The producers wanted to make another movie out of the Snow White story but link it with Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. I didn't like it so much, to be honest. So if a third movie does come along, I think I'll pass.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Intern (2015)

There are days when I just want to sit down and watch a movie that I don't have to think too much about. One of them is The Intern, a movie about a man who was already retired, whose wife had died, and whose child has his own family already... he wanted to do something productive with his time and got himself hired as an intern at an online clothing store (similar to Zalora, I imagine). As I watched the movie, Robert de Niro's character (the retired guy) reminded me so much of the old guy in UP!, the animated film. 

Anne Hathaway's character did not remind me of the plump boy in UP!. Instead, I remembered her boss in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep, ironically enough. Anne's character wasn't the devil, though; she was a young entrepreneur who was trying to make her business succeed while balancing it with her family life.

The heartwarming part of the movie, for me, was when Anne's boss character allowed Robert's intern character into her world. He was able to mentor her in getting her business back into something she can control and to find the balance between life and work. She, on the other hand, found a parent figure in her retired intern. She was also able to help make him feel needed again. 

It's certainly not a movie that will make me think deeply (like Inception does) but watching The Intern is an enjoyable, pleasant way to pass the time. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Je peux lire en français!

Before I went to Japan, Ms Natsu Kawazoe was getting information of guests' dietary restrictions. I had to give her my list of seafood allergies so that the chef/s at the venue could prepare a customised menu for me. Not a problem; I could always just skip a course if it had something I couldn't eat... if it were a buffet. However, the dinner I was supposed to attend followed the American formal dinner style (food, already plated, are served to each diner) so I had to really indicate my food restrictions. Otherwise, the kitchen staff wasted effort in plating for someone not eating a particular course.

(In contrast, the dinner I had at Bale Dutung had service à la française).

I have to say that the timing for me learning French is impeccable. Just before I flew to Japan, the topic we had in class was full-course meals, with the names of dishes and their ingredients in French. Lo and behold, the menu card handed to me:

printed in French and in Japanese! I knew somewhat what I was eating and I didn't have to rely on Google Translate and on Linguee every time a course was served. I could actually read French!! Haha!!

So here's what I had, in all their French-name sophistication:

Champignons et jambon cru et légumes verts 

Rôti de foie gras et jambon avec petits légumes

Estouffade de joues de boeuf à la ballotine sauce BBQ

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Science, technology, and innovation... and arts

Science and technology are very important for nation-building. 

If there is one lesson I'm taking home from Science Agora 2016 and from the JST 20th Anniversary Forum, it is that. But at the end of the day, it is people who will accept the outputs of science and technology; this means that scientists shouldn't forget to consider the acceptability of their innovations to the current projected stakeholders. Are they receptive to new technology or do they tend to hold on to the past as long they could... until they are forced to let go of obsolete technology?

It is this question that niggled in my head as I entered the last two sessions I attended in Science Agora 2016. Both were about science and technology in the context of culture and arts. And these two sessions were so good. I did not regret sitting here listening to them all the while knowing that I was missing out on the sightseeing in Tokyo because it was such a beautiful day to go around the city by foot.

The first session was by Kyoto Design Lab speakers. One of the most inspiring talks that I heard in this session was on the ME10/SUGAR Global Innovations program. In this program (which originated in Stanford), mechanical engineering students from all over the world collaborated to develop projects assigned to them by the program's corporate partners. It almost sounds like a hackathon because it pools people together for a limited time to put ideas on paper and eventually in real life. What makes this program special is its enabling capacity to expose students to different cultures as they work together with students in universities abroad. Why didn't we have similar programs back in the day?! Kyoto Design Lab was also able to pull my heartstrings when it started describing its efforts to preserve some of Japan's traditional textile culture. For example, kimonos can be made primarily using chirimen ("intelligent" silk woven to have wrinkles). Chirimen has such narrow use; if no other purpose is found for it, the art of making chirimen may die. Sounds like the rice terraces and heirloom rice all over again, right? The designers thought that chirimen has potential in three-dimensional printing to develop novel products. Another interesting project is its look at how urbanism and food culture are linked. For this work, Kyoto Design Lab partnered with ETH Studio Basel to trace the logistics and the cultural associations of food from farm to Kyoto urban table.

And then the delegation from the European Union talked about creativity mainly in music. For instance, there is an effort to develop software applications that can aid the music industry and create art at the same time. These futuristic software applications can potentially help people understand how the brain processes auditory stimuli. These software delineate what is digital and what is physical. I didn't even know that there are "virtual" instruments! On the other hand, the delegates also talked about how the brain is affected by virtual reality and how automation in various daily tasks (such as driving) can enhance safety. I had the feeling that if the discussion moved forward even more, the speakers would be in a position to speculate what the future means of entertainment would be. It also made me feel that Japan, with all its advances in robotics, is now in a capacity to ask a fundamental question: What makes humans human?

The contrast between the two sessions, for me, is stark. Yes, despite having science deeply embedded in their discussions. Whereas the Kyoto Design Lab talks made me feel warm and fuzzy because humanity is smack in the centre of scientific development as a stakeholder (how does modern technology help save a tradition?), the EU discussion session left me feeling chilled because I had the impression that the human is more guinea pig than recipient of technology (how does the brain react to virtual stimuli?). But that's just me, of course. 

Again, at the end of the day, we find products of science and technology either acceptable or not. We, the people, choose what technologies to move forward.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Visiting the Miraikan

Museums were not a highlight of my first visit to Tokyo because I wanted to see more of the Japanese countryside; it was sakura season after all. This time, thanks to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, I had the opportunity to see the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. This was the venue of some sessions of JST's Science Agora 2016 and I was excited to see the museum after browsing through the museum's website.

On the first day I was there, I didn't see much of the museum because I was in the panel discussion in a function hall and I attended the opening ceremonies of Science Agora (in a building across the street). Despite not seeing the museum exhibits, I totally had a good time because I was in lively discussions. I felt that the discussions were a preview on what the museum held. The functional hall, however, was interesting; it was set up similarly to how those daily talk show sets are set up: chairs, coffee tables, and microphones were on stage. We had assigned seating onstage, of course, and the non-Japanese speakers were given those receivers to hear the simultaneous interpretation.

The next day, I had a preview of the Miraikan exhibits because the panelists and the young scientists were given a private tour of the museum. It was fascinating because we had a "backstage pass": we went through the backdoors to get to the exhibits fast... these paths are not normally accessible to regular visitors to the museum. We passed by where the exhibits are being prepared, for instance. But this was just a glimpse because there were a few of us who had to go to the JST Anniversary Forum. I just had to find time to visit the museum again during my free time.

On my last day as an attendee of Science Agora, I was able to sneak in some time to visit the museum. I was in luck... Miraikan had a Free Admission Day!

This time, I was able to see the exhibits at my own pace. However, there were so many exhibits! I had to choose what I wanted to see because I only had an hour. I ended up visiting the giant globe again.

The science communicator on my second day had said that this globe basically reflected what satellites could see as they rotate around the Earth. If we were lucky, we might find typhoons or hurricanes. Yeah... they're fascinating to look at on a map but difficult to be in the midst of. When I visited, I felt lucky... there were no typhoons to be seen anywhere in the world!

Aside from the globe, I was also able to visit the health exhibit. In this space, scientists were speculating that there will come a day when diseases will be treated at the molecular level. I could understand where this idea comes from: as our understanding of biochemistry and metabolomics improves, we start seeing how diseases are triggered (e.g., what metabolic pathways are disrupted) and how these can be stopped... and even prevented. This is an interesting takeaway because it makes me believe that by shutting down or switching on different pathways, we can make people with diseases such as cancer and diabetes asymptomatic. Will people still need chemotherapy with this approach? Most likely. But the success rate for curing illnesses will shoot up.

And then there was the space exhibit. It featured Japan's launch vehicle engine and a model unit of the interiors of a "space habitation module". It is possible that when manned space flights to planets are made into a reality, astronauts will be living in these modules. It is also possible that these future astronauts will be put in hibernation and will be automatically woken up when they arrive in their destination planets. The launch vehicle engine (LE-7A engine), on the other hand, is used to launch satellites and to bring payload to and from the International Space Station via the H-IIA launch vehicle. This engine reminds me a whole lot of the Apollo rocket engine that was on display in Cape Canaveral. I have to admit, though, that I have not been updated on the space exploration efforts of countries other than the USA... I have always been fascinated by the Apollo program that I haven't even read up a lot on the Space Shuttle missions. 

That is why it was not a surprise when I came face-to-face with an astronaut and I didn't realise it immediately. I met Dr Mamoru Mohri, currently the Executive Director of the Miraikan... he personally welcomed us guests from Science Agora 2016 to the museum on my second day there. I was listening (and taking down notes) when he was talking about the museum. And then he related his experience of seeing the Earth from outer space. Say what?!? He saw the Earth from outer space?!? Oh my goodness, I was in the presence of an astronaut! A retired one at that!! An internet search showed that he is a veteran of two NASA Space Shuttle missions. How cool is that? And what's even cooler was that he actually talked with me about wanting to involve IRRI in Miraikan's international event next year. I was talking to an astronaut!! Mission accomplished! I can go home now!!

If some people get starstruck meeting tv and movie stars, I get starstruck meeting astronauts. 

But after that high, I realised that the Miraikan is also very much connected with more Earthly pursuits such as understanding the mechanisms behind the Tōhoku megathrust earthquake in 2011 (the one that triggered the infamous tsunami that then triggered the Fukushima Daiichi plant to melt down). The Miraikan also seeks to understand how humans adapt to extreme conditions and how science and technology can help ease transitions during calamities triggered by climate change, for instance.

Alas, my last opportunity to see the Miraikan during this trip was drawing to a close because I only had an hour between sessions of the creativity and innovation presentations at Science Agora. I have to go back here one day; an hour is not enough to see the entirety of the museum. This almost ensures that I'll return to Japan soon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Young scientists at the JST 20th Anniversary Forum

So this is really why I was in Japan: I was invited to the 2016 Science Agora and the Japan Science and Technology Agency's (JST) 20th anniversary forum; in both programs, I was a member of panels composed of scientists who were tasked on discussing how science can be more relatable to society. My attendance to these two events were made possible by Dr Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's Deputy Director General for Communications and Partnerships. I am deeply grateful to him because he nominated me to attend when JST asked if IRRI could send a young female scientist who could communicate the relevance of her research to society. I am also very thankful to the JST for extending the invitation to me after Bruce's nomination... and to Ms Natsuko Kawazoe (JST's Centre for Science Communication) for all her efforts in making sure that all of us, invited panelists and speakers, were prepared for our topics. She also organised the logistics for us. 

So, the previous posts were really the side trips. Now for the real deal...

The JST's 20th Anniversary theme was "Creating Innovation for Tomorrow's World". I, again, was in a panel composed of young researchers. Nuwong was there with me again. We were joined by fellow PhDs Takuya Kitagawa (Rakuten) and Ken Endo (Xiborg). It was interesting because this panel was composed of researchers from diverse fields of science: Nuwong is in biofuels; Takuya is into big data; Ken is into prosthetics; and I'm into rice research.

Our discussion was moderated by the Japanese non-fiction writer, Dr Kazuma Yamane.

We talked briefly about our research interests but the discussion ultimately landed onto the topic of mobility. What can I say about technologies to improve mobility?!? I'm a food scientists, for crying out loud! I felt like I was in a beauty pageant's Q&A portion... but everyone onstage is dressed in business attire and we were supposed to talk about science, technology, and innovation... not so much abstractions leading to random mentions of world peace. Oh... and I'm the only girl on stage.

Anyway, the discussion was very interesting. Mobility is a valued ability here, it seems. After all, mobility was equated with freedom, relaxation, the great outdoors. We were asked what our ideas about improved mobility are 20 years into the future. Robotics and new sources of fuel were mentioned. Even working from home or living close to the office were put forward. I had to think on the fly, I nervously thought... All I know is that vehicles burn fuel. So I said, probably we'll develop technologies that can harness energy to run vehicles directly from plants without killing the plants. Just like those bio fuel cells. After all, plants generate energy through photosynthesis and respiration, right? If we can harness some of that, then we won't need to kill plants for biofuel or dig up for oil. At the same time, the plants assimilate carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. So basically, plant boxes on top of cars. Hehe.

Me and my wild ideas right? As if it ended there...

On another instance, because the question was directly on how to improve the traffic situation, I said why not develop those flying cars just like those shown in The Jetsons (me and my American cartoon references... I could have talked about those flying lions in Voltron, or time-space warps like in Shaider, but no!). That way, we minimise the cars jamming the roads. After all, what's science fiction in the past can be reality now and in the future.

Was it right to speak off the top of my head in front of a scientific audience? I don't know, but I had to wing it. It was difficult to assess their reactions because there's a delay in the simultaneous translation to Japanese. And probably because new ideas tend to get put to the side because they're so... I don't know... weird?

However, after the panel discussion, someone from the science and technology office of the South African embassy approached me, saying that she enjoyed listening to my ideas. She's exploring possibilities of collaborating in the future and this may be one avenue worth pursuing, especially since South Africa is big on space research. Let's see where this goes. As my GRISP leadership mentors kept saying before, No is not allowed during brainstorming sessions.

Monday, November 14, 2016

blurring the line between real life and science fiction

Back in the day, Jurassic Park was one of the most fascinating films I've seen because it said that the reel-life scientists were capable of getting DNA from extinct dinosaurs, of inserting them in frog DNA, and, in so doing, resurrect dinosaurs. Yes, it was science fiction; but a few years later, real-life scientists presented Dolly, the sheep. She's the first cloned mammal.Dolly had repercussions in various sectors because the possibilities stemming from developments in DNA technologies suddenly became not so fiction anymore.

This was my sentiment during the JST 20th anniversary forum and the 2016 Science Agora, which were held in Tokyo recently. Scientists and artists collaborate to make technology-based artworks, musicians "collaborating" with computer-generated anime characters... things I thought were far-fetched and made very real to me in the presentations. 

Rochie, you're not in a third world country anymore. Indeed.

But the most compelling presentation I had seen during my brief stay in Tokyo was by Dr Chieko Asakawa. She's an IBM Fellow based in Carnegie Mellon, I think. And she's blind. Yes, blind! But she never made her disability limit her; she has used it to make innovations that someone like me would have considered as science fiction many years ago... before the Internet era.

See, she contributed in the development of mobile apps that allow text-to-audio... these technologies are crucial to the improvement of the quality of life of the blind. Now, they can "read" books, learn new recipes, and not be limited to Braille. Blind seeing people? There's an app for that too. It uses facial recognition and then it tells the blind user who the face is and what the person's facial expression is. Blind walking through a maze? Possible too, because scientists have further upgraded navigation tools to include audible instructions and accuracy is now good enough that it can tell you exactly where you are and how far you are from obstacles and your destination.

But here's the most amazing technology I've seen: scientists have developed a technology that will, one day, allow the blind to drive! That's so science-fiction-like until I saw the demonstration video. It was so cool!

If only Helen Keller can sense what the world is like right now. She'd be raring to explore the world in ways that she couldn't have imagined possible! And it's all in real life!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hatsune Miku, possibly a non-fiction S1M0NE

During the 2016 Science Agora, I opted to watch sessions on how science, technology, and innovation are used to move arts and creativity forward. One of the speakers was Keiichiro Shinuya, an artist who "collaborated" with Hatsune Miku to create an opera called "The End". 

Who is Hatsune Miku? I haven't heard of her but she's apparently very popular; people trooped to venues where The End was shown... notwithstanding that she is a 16-year old computer-generated humanoid character, her voice is generated through Yamaha's Vocaloid sample-synthesising technology, there were no humans in the opera, and music was played purely via synthesiser. In other words, no human was  involved in the opera onscreen.

During Shibuya's presentation, I was sitting in the audience, shaking my head in amazement. It appears that what Andrew Niccol envisioned when he produced and directed S1M0NE in 2002 is slowly becoming a reality a decade or so onwards. In that movie, Al Pacino portrayed a film director who developed Simone, a computer-generated female character equipped with artificial intelligence, to star in his movies. The consequences of her popularity were then explored as the movie reached its climax and denouement. 

Hatsune Miku is still years away from Simone but the concept has already been made reality. It's just a matter of refining the details; right now, Hatsune Miku looks like one of those characters in the animated Japanese series "Sailor Moon" but she was wearing a Marc Jacobs-designed Damier-checkered wardrobe. Yes, the virtual pop singer was virtually wearing Louis Vuitton in her opera! 

Japan is truly ultramodern. Culture here readily accepts innovations in entertainment as Hatsune Miku. It will take a few more years before the rest of the world can catch up, methinks. But when that time comes, Japan will have leaped forward again!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Science Agora 2016

So this is really why I was in Japan: I was invited to the 2016 Science Agora and the Japan Science and Technology Agency's (JST) 20th anniversary forum; in both programs, I was a member of panels composed of scientists who were tasked on discussing how science can be more relatable to society. My attendance to these two events were made possible by Dr Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's Deputy Director General for Communications and Partnerships. I am deeply grateful to him because he nominated me to attend when JST asked if IRRI could send a young female scientist who could communicate the relevance of her research to society. I am also very thankful to the JST for extending the invitation to me after Bruce's nomination... and to Ms Natsuko Kawazoe (of JST's Centre for Science Communication) for all her efforts in making sure that all of us, invited panelists and speakers, were prepared for our topics. She also organised the logistics for us. 

So, the previous posts were really the side trips. Now for the real deal...

"Agora" means meeting place or centre of a particular activity. In this case, it was apt that the meeting place of scientists from different countries to talk science with non-scientists was the Miraikan, Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. This was Science Agora 2016, just the biggest science communications event in Japan. The talks this year revolved around the theme "Let's build a society harmonised with science", as the JST envisions that the society of the future will have science as one of its major building blocks.

I was a commentator in the keynote session entitled "What can STI contribute to the global issues today such as SDGs we have to cope with?" In the commentating section, I was joined by fellow young researchers Drs Nuwong Chollacoop (the head of the Renewable Energy Laboratory at the National Metal and Materials Technology Centre in Thailand) and Shoji Komai (Associate Professor at Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan).

The presenters and the moderator, who complete the panelists onstage, have very impressive backgrounds. Professor Satoru Ohtake, the moderator, was Senior Director of JST before moving on into the Cabinet Office's Economic and Social Research Institute. Professor Massimiano Bucchi is from the University of Trento (Italy) where he studies science and technology in society. Dr Rush Holt used to be a member of the US House of Representatives and is now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mr Michael Ellis is the science communications manager at the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. Professor Dave Cope also worked in government, serving the UK Parliament as Director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Professor Tateo Arimoto has served in various policy-making capacities in the Japanese government, even representing Japan in UN meetings.

What was I doing there?!? How do I look intelligent with these people onstage? Okay, this was definitely not the right place to zone out in the middle of the discussion.

The hardest part with being in front of the cameras and the audience while the panel discussion was happening was I couldn't take notes the way I do in class (which means writing everything down). Because of my blooper just before the panel discussion started, I couldn't even get to my pen and notebook. I have to be completely present at discussion and do things on the fly, no notes. Brain and heart, don't fail me now, I thought. I'm so glad they didn't. It really helped that the discussion was a topic that I am quite enthusiastic about... and with the panelists, it was super easy to get sucked into the discussion.

So, what can science, technology, and innovation do to help society?

Prof Bucchi's presentation was interesting because he showed how non-scientists perceived how science could contribute... and it was refreshing to see that they believe that culture actually benefits from scientific advances. Biology and physics play a big role, the non-scientists believe. But many of them felt that Math didn't so much; but they probably forgot the Math is behind all the theories that led to these scientific improvements.

And then there's Prof Arimoto's talk. He showed photos of Tokyo from today and from 50 years back. I couldn't believe it... Tokyo was so polluted back in the day! The seas were dirty, the air was smoggy, and it looked like it was in the post-Apocalyptic era. But today, Tokyo's sky is so clear! It's almost unbelievable that such a large metropolis has very clean air... but I've been there to actually see the skyline for myself so I can believe it. And Tokyo Bay is picturesque. It doesn't look dirty at all.

This cleanliness that Tokyo inhabitants and visitors are enjoying now is a product of Japan's highly innovative science and technology sector. I really wish to see Manila and the rest of the Philippines looking like this.

The rest of the discussion was about the SDGs, of course. And then it was time for the commentators to talk. The three of us were keen on understanding the links between the STIs and culture. After all, all innovations borne out of scientific developments will eventually be used by society... which means that these have to be culturally acceptable and sensitive to the socioeconomic context of the people. For instance, rice varieties must be developed with the end-users in mind... because there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of rice quality. People have different preferences. This struck a chord among the panelists; they were all nodding their heads in agreement and they picked up on the line of thought. Another striking idea was on considering the emotions of the users of the technologies... to me that meant that scientists should not forget the humanity of the people. It's a foreign concept to me until I attended the creativity sessions of Science Agora. Oh boy... they were in a position to ponder on what makes humans distinct from humanoids.

What?!? Defining humans because robots are becoming more and more human?

That stopped me on my tracks. It was a concept that I have difficulty wrapping my head around. In fact, I had chills thinking about how far the tech discussions have gone here while I was involved in research that makes sure that people can address one of their basic needs: food security.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Learning the art of eating "tsukemen"

After visiting the highest man-made point in Tokyo, I felt like I worked up a serious craving for ramen. And where's the best place to have authentic Japanese ramen? Japan! One of the famous ramen restos in Tokyo is Rokurinsha. The queues here are reportedly very long... the food was reportedly that good. Fortunately for me, Rokurinsha has a branch very close to the Tokyo SkyTree. I had to get some help finding it, of course, because the name's written in Japanese. 

When I got there, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to wait to be seated or if I should just go and grab a seat. Good thing was that one of the servers noticed that I was clueless. He asked me to wait while he found a table for me and then directed me to the ordering machine. It's like a vendo machine, actually: put in your money, click on the food you want to eat, and collect the change, if applicable. (I've encountered such machine previously: in Matsuya Shinsaibashi!)

After I finished ordering, I was led to a bar table with a good view of the open kitchen. An advantage for me because the servers could check on me if I had questions or if I needed anything.

Within a few minutes, my ramen arrived. But it didn't look like regular ramen. It was basically a deconstructed ramen dish! There were two bowls: one contained the noodles and a soft-boiled egg; the other bowl contained a thick sauce with the meat and other ingredients.

It is called tsukemen and there is a special way of eating it. That's according to the English pamphlet that the servers kindly provided me.

Of course, I followed the instructions to the letter.
     (1) Dip a biteful of noodles into the sauce.
     (2) Once soaked by the sauce, eat the noodles.
     (3) Add vinegar and pepper to the sauce.
     (4) Repeat steps 1 and 2.
     (5) Once the noodles are finished, ask for soup to dilute the sauce.
     (6) Slurp away!

Note that there were no instructions on how to eat the egg. So I just ate it after I've eaten the noodles. I also dipped the egg in the sauce (Steps 1–6, but with egg).

I ended up enjoying the tsukemen! It had the right balance of the different flavours, with umami being the overarching theme until I added vinegar and pepper. Then the ramen took on a whole different character all together! I wonder where this is being served in the Philippines. I want to try it here too.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

on top of Tokyo

Tokyo is a huge city. But I noticed that it doesn't feel as cramped as San Francisco or Sydney. I wondered quite a bit about it and then I realised that maybe it's either of two reasons: (1) because I am now used to seeing skyscrapers (and the first time I saw them in Hong Kong was a disconcerting experience); and/or (2) because the buildings were not so high or were not so close together. My impression was that Tokyo's skyline was as crowded as Brisbane or Los Angeles... or even Makati CBD: not too claustrophobic when seen from a distance, despite the lack of space.

I also wanted to see what Tokyo looked like from high above so I opted to go to Tokyo Sky Tree, said to be the tallest structure in Tokyo AND the tallest tower in the world. It did take me an hour because I got lost somewhere in in the Okachimachi area of the Taito district of Tokyo. When I arrived in the Skytree area, I barely had an hour left before the tower closed down for the night.

I got lucky though because the queue was virtually non-existent. It took me less than five minutes to get a ticket and finally be in the lift to go up the Sky Tree!

As the elevator was ascending, I was surprised to see the speed of the ascent: we were traveling at 600m/min. That translates to 36 kph; definitely not that fast on the road. But this was going up a tower... against gravity! and unlike regular elevators that feel rickety and clumsy, the Sky Tree's elevator was silent. If it weren't for my ears popping, I wouldn't believe that I was actually moving.

The elevator's first stop was the Tembo Deck (350m above ground). But I wanted to see what Tokyo looks like from the topmost observation deck for tourists so I took another elevator (which costs extra) and "flew"another 95m to the Tembo Galleria (445m above ground). Yes, I was almost half a kilometer away from the surface of the Earth. That's nothing compared to the Everest base camp, of course, but still... I was in a tall narrow building on one of the most earthquake-prone countries on the planet, looking at the city below.

I have to admit, the view was not that impressive. I was just too high up! Everything at 445m looked like dots of light. But it was fascinating to watch the tiny cars drive by on the tiny roads and bridges that traverse the tiny rivers. The skyscrapers all looked puny too. Whoever said that people who think very highly of themselves eventually get a perverse view of the world probably haven't seen the view from here. There is nothing to see from this extreme... unless you've equipped yourself with a pair of binoculars, of course.

And so I opted to go back to the lower observation deck, where I expected to have a better perspective of this Japanese metropolis. And the view from this height did not disappoint. It was better than the view at 445m!

Finally, I could see a bit more detail. I could easily recognise Daiba because of the giant Ferris wheel next to the coast. I could also readily see the red Tokyo Tower. Too bad my iPhone wasn't up to the challenge to take good nighttime images of the city. It's just beyond it's capacity! No biggie. I'm sure I'll be back here someday. Then, I'll have a better camera.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

lost in translation and the clock is ticking...

After that pit stop at Yodobashi Akiba, it was time again to move. I wanted to see Tokyo from the sky so I had two options: Tokyo Skytree (the tallest tower in the world) or Tokyo Tower (the second tallest structure in Japan). But before I could decide which one to visit, I had to find the train station first.

Finding a train station wasn't so hard; all I had to do was go outside Yodobashi Akiba. The problem was that there were two train stations. The JR line (the commuter rail service) and the Tokyo Metro (the rapid transit service) were both outside. I knew I wasn't supposed to take the JR line because I paid a one-day pass on the Tokyo Metro. But for the Tokyo Metro, I could only see the entrance to a different line, not that one I wanted to take. Oh well, I knew I could just go and catch the train there and then transfer at a station in which the two lines were adjacent to each other. That's basically how Krishna and I figured the Tokyo Metro on our first trip to the city. 

So, I took the train to where I thought I could catch the correct train to visit... the Tokyo Sky Tree. Emerging from the subway, I realised that the Metro station I was looking for was difficult to find. Again, I found a JR line station (it's quite prominent) quite easily enough. Why was the Metro station so hard to find?! Apple Maps wasn't very helpful because the street names were in Japanese while I was in Tokyo. Google Maps? Street names were also in Japanese. 

I am not kidding. And I was utterly lost. Why was my internal homing beacon not working? Oh, right! It's because I've never been to this part of Tokyo!

Anyway, I eventually found the correct train station (the Metro line that I was looking for). What made the search difficult was how to get to the station. Based on GPS and both Google and Apple Maps, I was literally in the station and I should be seeing it already. What the maps didn't say was that this station was smack under a building; what looked to me like a shopping mall. Or the map did say but I just wasn't able to read the text. All I saw was this:

Yes, I was already lost but I was still taking photos. Priorities, right?

I should have plenty of time to explore the Skytree; I just hope that I wouldn't be lost again when I'd arrived in the next station.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

exploring Akihabara

Ticking off the places I haven't been to in Tokyo that I could easily visit by train (and were still open at night), I settled on going to Akihabara. According to the tourist information websites, this is known as "Electric Town" because you can buy a lot of household appliances here. This specification of districts selling specific items remind me of Calle Raon in Quiapo, Manila. Like Akihabara, Raon is known as the shopping district for electronics. Anyway, I digress...

As I was walking along towards Electric Town from the Tokyo Metro station, I came across these billboards. I was quite surprised because there were a lot of anime characters portrayed on these boards. After looking high up, I resumed looking at street-level and was more surprised to see many women dressed like Sailor Moon and her friends, trying to catch Japanese men's attention. What was going on in here?!?

I learned later, when I looked up on anime culture on the internet, that Akihabara is the centre of otaku (the Japanese concept of computer nerds) culture in the world. These otaku practitioners are highly into computers, video-gaming, and Japanese cartoons and comics. The women walking around in character were apparently promoting "maid cafés" that line the street. 

So walking on, I ended up in one of the bigger department stores for electronic gadgets in Akihabara: Yodobashi Akiba. Good thing too because I was getting tired of the limitations of iPhone photography (It has a really good camera but still can't replace a real one, sorry!) and was raring to get a real camera... not a dSLR though because it's way too heavy to carry around when I travel. As I entered the lobby, I felt I entered Ollivanders wand shop or Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, both in Diagon Alley.

If this was my last stop for this evening's adventure into Tokyo, I would've spent so much time checking out the different gadgets. However, I wanted to see Tokyo from the sky so I only stuck to the camera floor... there are a total of eight floors, I think; it's a shame I wasn't able to visit the other floors. I'm sure that I'll drop by again; if not this branch, another branch in Tokyo... someday.

Monday, November 7, 2016

matcha pasalubong!

Japan is known for its matcha tea. And it seems that I have quite a number of friends who have developed a liking for this very special type of tea. In fact, I got lassoed into joining Krishna and Ate Mary to visit the Matcha Festival at Newport Mall a few months ago. During this trip to Tokyo, I had a few matcha requests. I said I couldn't promise anything but I'd buy when I come across some matcha.

I was walking along a side road leading back to the train station from Sensō-ji Temple. That's where I chanced upon this store. It carried anything matcha-flavoured, so I decided to stop en route to the train station. Inside, I found so many food products with matcha flavour so I bought as many as I could afford. 

Choosing among the different products was difficult because the tags were all in Japanese. Plus, for the products with English labels, I have no idea what the differences were between sencha, houjicha, and matcha. I figured that my best bet was to get the powder form. The leaves were for drinking specifically but the powdered form would be good for other products too.

With a grin on my face, I left the store with a bag filled to the brim with matcha goodies... and matcha soft-serve ice cream! I just had to try this despite my lactose intolerance; I could eat some ice cream but I couldn't eat a big serving. I'd love to buy more matcha but I was afraid my checked-in bag might go overweight.

Despite buying all these products for pasalubong, I thought that should buy more when I got to the airport. At least my purchases won't count against my carry-on weight limit. Aside from matcha, I bought non-food gift items for my relatives. Mommy wanted to get a souvenir from Japan so I thought a pouch bag might be a good idea.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Visita Iglesia to the Sensō-ji Temple

As per tradition, I wanted to visit a place in Tokyo that spoke of its traditions and unique identity. This meant that I was going to visit a site with temples and/or a traditional village. It was a toss up between visiting Asakusa's Sensō-ji Temple or Shibuya's Meiji Shrine. But I've been to Shibuya before so I opted to prioritise Asakusa... I only had a morning to explore Tokyo before going back to Odaiba and I didn't want to repeat a visit.

The Sensō-ji Temple turns out to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, built in 645 AD. It is said to be one of the most colourful temples in the city. I thought, therefore, that it would be a good place to visit and see something traditional–uniquely Japanese–in this ultramodern city.

Reading through tourist guides, I learned that the Sensō-ji Temple could get crowded. But it's a pilgrimage site as well, so I didn't expect it to be too chaotic. I was thinking that people would actually behave because this is sacred ground to worshippers. The sight that greeted me at the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) was a surprise: there were so many people! It's as if everyone decided to visit the temple the same time I was there! Too many tourists!

Because there were so many people, I wasn't able to take a closer look at the features of this gate. All I noticed was this giant red lantern right in the middle of the gate. Many of the visitors were taller than I am; a challenging situation for me because it meant that I wouldn't be able to see anything when I started to plunge towards the temple. Good thing I was carrying my selfie stick with me; in this situation, I could put the stick high above my head and take photos. This allowed me to take photos as I was walking through the jam-packed Nakamise-dōri, the street lined with souvenir shops. 

But after I had passed the shopping street, I approached the Hozōmon (Treasure House Gate). It provided access to the inner, more peaceful section of the temple complex. On either side of the gate are two giant statues of red creatures; these statues probably guard the deities inside the temple. 

This gate seemed to filter the tourists further because by the time I passed it, the crowd was considerably thinner. Or so I thought because people probably started spreading out. The stairs leading to the Hondō (main temple building), however, was packed. But once I got to the top of the stairs and into the temple, I was greeted by a peaceful atmosphere. People here were prayerful and were looking around quietly. Photography of the deity at the centre of the altar wasn't allowed so I just contented myself with looking at the paintings in the ceiling and at people. 

Honestly, I wonder how real pilgrims–as opposed to tourists–viewed this place. With such big crowds, how do worshippers feel closer to their deities as they prayed? I guess they must have gotten used to it. After all, this temple has been receiving tourists for hundreds of years!

This visit has been too short. At some point, I have to return and soak in more of the culture. I have to roam around the temple grounds because it appears that I've only seen a part of the temple complex. The tourist guides say that there are more things to see and do in this area.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

exploring Odaiba

This autumn trip to Tokyo has brought me to places I haven't visited on my first trip to the city. Aside from Ginza, I was able to explore another district on another evening... Odaiba. Now this area allowed me to be near the sea; the Tokyo Bay, to be exact. But even with my closest approach (which was on a quay), I couldn't hear the crash of waves.... Because there were no crashing waves. It was really strange. It was quite a contrast from Anilao, where the waves break onto the rocky beach, making that calming sound always associated with the sea. 

Odaiba appears to be made up of artificial islands; these were formally intended to be fortresses to protect Tokyo from foreign invaders in the 19th century. After half a century, the islands were officially connected and converted into a major tourist area. I limited my exploration to the outdoor attractions of Odaiba for my evening stroll... I felt that I had already spent too much time indoors that day. I began my walking tour at the Odaiba Seaside Park. As I walked along the pathway, I ended up in New York, on Liberty Island to be be specific! 


Although Japan is an ultramodern country, I don't think its scientists have developed a way to teleport people from one city to another... except to bring muggles to Hogsmeade. That, I've experienced myself. No need to catch the train at Platform 9-3/4!

The statue of Liberty found in Odaiba is a replica, but not of the New York statue. Instead, it's a replica of the statue found in Île aux Cygnes, France. I've never been to New York or to Île aux Cygnes; it's my first time to see the Statue of Liberty in any form, in real life. So I was quite excited to see it up close.

Behind the replica was the Rainbow Bridge, a suspension bridge that probably got its name from the different colours it gets lit up with at night. On the night I went on my stroll, the bridge was mainly white. But I've found photos in which the bridge looked like gummy bears because of the colours.

A few metres away, I found that the view of the bay at night wasn't easy to photograph because it was too dark. I started missing the use of a real camera, rather than the iPhone. Sure, the iPhone takes decent photos... but I still prefer using a standalone camera. Anyway, as I walked away from the water, I noticed yet another statue.

Unfortunately, I don't know what this sculpture is all about. All I can surmise is this may be about a woman whose view of herself is not yet fully formed. I passed this sculpture and started walking more inland.

Further down the park, I came across a third big statue: the Freedom Flame on the Centre Promenade. This sculpture was made by Marc Coutelier using aluminum and bronze covered in gold leaf. It looked like a giant segmented worm to me... and in no way was I convinced that it's covered in gold. The lights that night made the statue look a bit green.

Soon, I was somewhere near Diver City, a shopping mall, whose main outdoor attraction is a giant statue of Gundam. This is the fourth big statue I've encountered this night. What's going on here?!

I don't know who Gundam is, but my brother does. I think I grew up relating more to my older cousins because I'm more exposed to "older" animated series like Voltes V, Voltron (with the lions), Candy Candy, and Daimos... these, I think, were shown much earlier in the Philippines than Gundam. Anyway, I was wowed by the size of the robot! And this made me think: if the cartoons were true (i.e., real life), then the robots must even be bigger than these, particularly Voltes V and Voltron; human operators of the various components would force the robot makers to make sure that they (the operators) can fit in.

Further down the path, I walked past a skater park and a few markers stating the land elevation. The last time I saw one of these was in Brisbane. Bob, my supervisor, had mentioned then that they used these markers to show how far floods from the Brisbane River can go inland. Perhaps, this Odaiban elevation marker does something similar; most likely, this place gets its share of flooding.

A few metres further, I arrived at Venus Fort. It is a shopping mall. But to me, the main attraction wasn't the mall itself (which I would have loved to explore if it were open late into the night) but the Toyota MegaWeb. Coming from a family of car enthusiasts, I just had to take a peek at what Toyota models are on display here.

Too bad the exhibits were already closed. I was lucky though because when the exhibits close, the corridor inside MegaWeb becomes a pass-through to the other side of the building; so, even if I couldn't get close to the vehicles, I could at least see them from afar. The best exhibit, I think, was the display of real cars in glass cases one on top of the other... like Matchboxes, only a lot bigger!

There also was a Ferris wheel near the MegaWeb. It's called Daikanransha, one of the tallest Ferris wheels all over the world. Would I like to ride in it? No! I'd rather go visit the Tokyo Skytree! That's even taller! When I could do that is the big question.

My selfie stick finally decided to get drained. And so, finally, I decided to head back to the hotel. For the first time, I was able to use the selfie stick with my iPhone in earnest. Finally, I had photos of me! On the other hand, my feet were starting to feel the strain of too much walking: first in heels all day (inclined surfaces, carpeted areas, and stairs included) and then in walking boots over long distances. I worried that I might have walked too far away that it would be difficult to go back to the hotel. However, I was pleasantly surprised that if I weren't taking a lot of photos, this evening stroll wasn't too long. Maybe a kilometer and a half or so only. 

I was lucky because the nighttime temperature didn't dip too low. I had a very nice, relaxing long walk. Looking forward to the next one.

Friday, November 4, 2016

cracking codes

It was a damper, I have to admit. I opted to stay in the hotel instead of exploring Tokyo again because my laptop bag's lock combination changed without me knowing how it happened! Suffice it to say that I basically had to puncture a hole through the zipper of my bag to get my phone (which contains my schedule for the day and instructions on where I was supposed to go); I couldn't get my business cards out; and I was very lucky to be staying in a hotel a few minutes' walk away from where I was supposed to go and be intelligent (I didn't have to pay train fare).

Cracking codes... I thought that this should be easy. A three-number lock has 1000 combinations. All I had to do was try all of them and finally get my bag properly opened. Right? I mean, this has happened before when I was traveling (but on my checked-in luggage) and it's the most straightforward solution. I have opened my previous bag in half an hour. No biggie. So thought that my carry-on's bag would be a piece of cake.

But no. It was definitely not a piece of cake. Apparently, my carry-on's bag's lock was a bit more sophisticated than my checked-in bag's lock. I couldn't unlock my bag throughout the day! Oh well, I thought, I'd have all evening to work on it... after dinner.

Back in the hotel, after dinner, I finally had a chance to crack the code in earnest. In the worst case scenario, I'd just bring the bag to the repair shop and have a locksmith jimmy it open. But I thought I should be able to do this. Or at least give it my best shot before taking it to the locksmith. I mean, I've solved three Mystery Manila games with teammates previously. Code-breaking should be easy. Or not. Yeah... I did mess up on a combination lock during my first successful game because I'm left-handed and I processed the instructions differently from how a right-handed person would do so.

Anyway, as I was trying to figure out how to get the right combination, I felt like I was (again) Charlize Theron's character in the Italian Job. This time, it's not because I was driving a car; rather, it was because I was in a hotel room, trying to coax a lock open, listening to the clicks of the combination lock while the telly was on... for ambient noise. Also, I tried to channel MacGyver. But the only thing I have in his repertoire of tools is a Swiss knife and a piece of thin plastic (from my phone's magnetic holder). I don't have chewing gum... haven't eaten one in decades. 

What a time to be a damsel in distress, right? But it was a puzzle to solve and I was determined to crack it.

An hour later, I finally got the combination! I still don't get the clicking because my ears aren't attuned to it. But I learned that it's all about figuring out the feel of a dial turning into the right number. 

Another life (lock-picking) skill unlocked. I wish I don't have to use it any time soon.