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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 17: Trip to Japan (20 April 2010)

It rained again today. The only item on my agenda for today was the dinner reception with the Prime Minister at the New Otani Hotel organised by Yayasan Pelajaran MARA. The Prime Minister had been in Tokyo for an official two-day visit to Japan.

The rest of the day was spent in the hotel room. Truth be told, I had been exhausted from this working trip. So, I took the opportunity on this relatively quiet day to rest.

During the dinner later that evening, I had the opportunity to meet again with a number of students whom I had met before from all over Japan. It was great to be able to see most of them again in person, and to be able to extend my gratitude for their co-operation and assistance throughout my stay in Japan.

I am personally very happy to have met their acquaintance. I believe that they will lead a successful life in the years to come.

It has indeed been a unique journey for me. These past 17 days have been special, educational and an eye-opener. As I often like to say whenever I go to other parts of the world: I listen, I watch, I think, I speak, I write...

Now I would like to add two more items to that list: I experience, I learn.

I will be leaving in the morning of the 21 April 2010. I can't wait to get home to the people I love. But most definitely, at the same time, I leave with fond memories of Japan.

Sayonara, Japan.

Day 16: Trip to Japan (19 April 2010)

The weather was beautiful today. The sun was out. The temperature was mild. This was perhaps the best condition I have had throughout my trip to Japan thus far.

Two university visits were on the cards for today. Yayasan Ilmuwan's executive chairman, Dr Khairul 'Azmi Mohamad led a five-man delegation to Saitama University and Takushoku University. The others in the delegation were Encik Mazilan Musa (executive director and project director of the Japanese project), Encik Zahari Mohamad (head of the education development unit), Encik Ahmad Zaki Udah (head of the research and development unit), and myself.

To get to Saitama University, we opted to take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Omiya with a brief stop at Ueno. The shinkansen that we took was the ASAMA Superexpress. The journey was also brief as it took only 25 minutes on the bullet train. After arriving at Omiya eki, we took a taxi to Saitama University where we were met by Dr Tachibana Masahiko who is vice chairman of the Malaysia Project Committee, and Dr Akira Nagasawa, a professor of chemistry at the university. We were taken on a tour to a number of laboratories in the university and were briefed on a number of on-going research projects being carried out there.

After Saitama University, our next destination was Takushoku University. Again we boarded a shinkansen, this time the MAX Toki Express from Omiya and we alighted at Ueno. The journey was only 19 minutes. From Ueno eki, we took a taxi to Takushoku University to pay a courtesy visit to Mr Fukuda Katsuyuki, the managing director of the university.

It was already nearly 2 p.m. when we were done at the university. It was decided that we head for Ginza for lunch. After lunch, I left for the hotel to do some work that needed to be done. The rest of the afternoon was quite free. Later that evening, I went again to Zauo to have dinner. Somehow, I seem to enjoy the atmosphere at this restaurant. Otherwise, I wouldn't have gone there again and again.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 15: Trip to Japan (18 April 2010)

The weather on this day was better. It wasn't cold as it was cool. It made for a refreshing change, and suited well for our trip to Nagaoka. Nagaoka is about 270 km to the north-west of Tokyo, and is located in the Niigata Prefecture. This is the furthest north that I would be in this trip to Japan.

Before leaving for Nagaoka, we checked out of the Shinjuku Washington Hotel and checked in at the Imperial Hotel located at Chiyoda-ku. This was because we will be joined by another five from Yayasan Ilmuwan. They would be arriving from Hiroshima later that evening.

After checking in, we took a train from Yurakucho eki to Tokyo eki. There, we boarded the 09:28 MAX (Multi Amenity Express) Toki Express shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagaoka. What is unique about the MAX Toki Express shinkansen is that it is a double-decker shinkansen. The shinkansen journey takes about 1 hour 38 minutes, with brief stops at Ueno, Omiya, Echigo-Yuzawa and Urasa stations.
The view on the way to Nagaoka is picturesque. The mountains are still covered in snow. There are paddy fields along the shinkansen tracks. Perhaps there is something special about the rural life in Japan. It gives a certain degree of calmness as compared to the hectic life of Tokyo or other big cities.
Upon arrival at Nagaoka, we headed by taxi to Yukyuzan Park (picture above) where the Malaysian community there was having their hanami. There was nearly 70 Malaysians who were there. After meeting up with the students, we took the 15:24 Max Toki Express shinkansen back to Tokyo, with brief stops at Echigo-Yuzawa, Takasaki, Omiya and Ueno before arriving at our destination at four past five.

We then took the train to Yurakucho which is the nearest to the hotel. The rest of Yayasan Ilmuwan's delegation arrived at the hotel a couple of hours later. Later, we had dinner at the Aladdin restaurant located at Roppongi at Minato-ku.

Day 14: Trip to Japan (17 April 2010)

The temperature was the coldest yet. I didn't actually have any plans to go anywhere on this day. Initially we planned to meet the students at Nagaoka but the plan was postponed to the next day at the request of the students. Because of this, I opted to just stay at the hotel since the temperature wasn't really conducive for outdoor activities. Zaki meanwhile attended a meeting at the embassy regarding the upcoming visit of the Prime Minister.

Around 2 p.m., I decided to go out for lunch. I did an Internet search and found a halal Indian restaurant called "Taz Mahal". I had rice, mutton curry, chicken tandoori and masala tea for a very reasonable price.

Later that evening, Zaki and I decided to have dinner again at "Zauo". This time we had kani korokke, oebi tenpura, sashimi and salmon shabu-shabu. Not much can be said about this day aside from the fact that it really felt like winter.

Day 13: Trip to Japan (16 April 2010)

We went for Friday prayer at the Tokyo Mosque at Shibuya-ko. The official name for the masjid is Tokyo Camii and Turkish Cultural Center. The masjid was founded by the Turkish community in 1938, hence the distinctive Turkish architecture.

After the prayer, we went to Akihabara to look for some souvenirs before leaving for Ueno. This day had so far been wet and cold, with the heavy rain and winter-like temperature. I was starting to feel slightly unwell, most probably because of exhaustion rather than the cold weather. Zaki suggested that I rested for the day at the hotel while he went to see the students studying at Meiji University.

Later in the evening, we had supper (for Zaki) and dinner (for me) at a Japanese restaurant located in our hotel. The restaurant, which is called "Zauo", has a very interesting theme. In the centre of the restaurant is a structure built to look like a boat, and underneath it is a pond. The boat-like structure is where patrons would sit to dine, while at the same time, patrons can choose to do some fishing. If patrons manage to catch a fish or a lobster, then it will be served at a discounted price.

Another interesting thing about this restaurant is that it serves only seafood prepared in many ways. You can have it raw (sushi or sashimi), you can have it grilled, you can have it served as tenpura or korukke, or you can have it steamed, or you can have it boiled (shabu-shabu). The price was not too steep, and I think it is quite reasonable. That night, we had kani or crab korokke and oebi (prawn) tenpura.

The temperature for the night continued to be cold. I received news from the students at Hachioji that snow was falling there. In fact, a few friends from Malaysia also informed me that the news about snow in Japan was featured in the news. Apparently this was the first time in 40 years that snow actually came down in April. There was no snow in Shinjuku though, but frankly I wasn't complaining.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 12: Trip to Japan (15 April 2010)

My PhD supervisor have always told me that Tokyo is a good place to buy good second hand books at affordable prices. The well-known place for this purpose is Kanda. However, after doing some searching in the Internet, I found that the shop that has a good collection is located in another area called Ebisu. The shop is called "Good Day Books" and is owned by an American man from California. He gets his supply mainly from the United States, and brings the books to Japan to be sold at his second hand shop.

The bookshop is just a stone's throw away from Ebisu eki. It was at first quite a task to find the kind of books that I was looking for. But when I found what I liked, I felt like I didn't want to leave. If it was up to me, I had wanted to pick up a lot of the books. I had to refrain myself though, limiting myself only to those titles particularly relevant to my doctorate research. In the end, I bought five books: Modern Science & Human Values, The Philosophies of Science, The Ethical Brain, The Turn to Ethics and Science, Faith and Religion.

From Ebisu, we went to Akihabara which is famous for its electrical and electronic goods. Akihabara is also known to many as the "Electric Town". Akihabara is heaven for those who are into electrical and electronic goods, including cameras.
Later, we left Akihabara for Shinjuku, and from Shinjuku we took the Odakyu line which heads to Tokaidaigaku-mae eki to meet up with the students studying at the Shonan campus of Tokai University. It was quite an experience getting on a train during rush hour. The train was packed to the brim, in a manner of speaking.
Without realising it initially, we actually got on the wrong train. We were supposed to take the one heading towards Odawara (the Odakyu Odawara line), instead we boarded the one heading for Fujisawa (the Odakyu Enoshima line). Fortunately, Zaki realised the mistake not long after the intersection at Sagami-Ono eki that separates the Odakyu Enoshima line from the Odakyu Odawara line. We got off the train at Chuo Rinken eki, boarded another train going back to Sagami-Ono eki, alighted there and boarded the right train heading to Tokaidaigaku-mae eki.
We finally arrived at Tokaidaigaku-mae eki around a quarter past eight in the evening. After meeting and having dinner with the students (picture above), we boarded the last train back to Shinjuku which was the 23:29 train. By the time we arrived at Shinjuku eki, it was already half past midnight. What was interesting to me was the number of people still waiting to board the train at this late hour.

Outside the eki, Shinjuku (and I believe, most part of Tokyo) is very much alive. There are a lot of people outside despite the peculiarly cold temperature. It felt very much like winter, and not spring. Zaki and I walked back to the hotel from the station. For me, I was able to see the night life in the vicinity of Shinjuku, and it is colourful and vibrant to say the least.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 11: Trip to Japan (14 April 2010)

Another travelling day, this time from Osaka back to Tokyo. We checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to a place called Sakura no Torinuke in the city of Osaka. The place is actually a 560 metre-long pathway lined up wit 324 sakura trees. There are 127 species of sakura here, including rare ones like green-coloured sakura. This happened to be the first day that Sakura no Turinuke is opened for the year. As such, there were a lot of visitors to the place when we got there.
The weather was good and the sky was clear, but it was slightly cold because of the wind. After walking from one end of Sakura no Turinuke to another, we took another taxi to Shin-Osaka eki to board the shinkansen to Tokyo. Distance from Osaka to Tokyo is approximately 550 km, and on the Hikari Superexpress, the journey is just under three hours. There were quite a few stops - seven to be exact - before we reached Tokyo. The stops were at Kyoto, Maibara, Gifu-Hashima, Nagoya, Odawara, Shin-Yokohama and Shinagawa.

I missed the view of Mount Fuji when travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto previously. This time I made sure that I did not miss it. The famous mountain can be seen just as we left Odawara eki. The sight of the mountain is amazing with the tip still covered in snow. I was not able to capture any photos as the shinkansen was moving too fast for me to snap a good photo of the mountain. Nonetheless, having being able to view the mountain from afar in person, albeit briefly, was good enough for me.

We arrived in Tokyo at ten past three in the afternoon. We then took train to Shinjuku eki, before checking in at the Shinjuku Washington Hotel. Later that evening, we met up with a group of students from two Tokyo-based universities, namely Tokyo University of Science and Tokyo Denki University.

Day 10: Trip to Japan (13 April 2010)

The weather was better today. The sky is slightly cloudy, but at least it was not raining. The temperature was just nice, not too hot and not too cold. The tenth day was a relatively quiet day. I did not have any appointments on this day. Zaki, on the other hand, had a dinner engagement with another colleague, Zahari who had just arrived in Osaka from Malaysia a couple of days earlier, and a lecturer from Kinki University.

I was more or less slightly exhausted from the travelling in previous days. So the slight change of pace was a welcome one. The only thing that I did was to walk towards Osaka Castle from the hotel. The walk took some twenty minutes. The relatively nice weather made the walking relaxing.

Hopefully the weather will continue to be good in the coming days.

Day 9: Trip to Japan (12 April 2010)

The phrase "wet, wet, wet" came to mind on this ninth day. It rained from morning till night, almost continuously. In any case, it was time to bid farewell to Okayama. Our next destination was Osaka, which among others is well-known for its castle (above).

We took the shinkansen from Okayama eki to Shin-Osaka eki. The distance is around 175 km and took about 51 minutes on the Hikari Rail Superexpress. The shinkansen made two brief stops at Himeji and Shin-Kobe.

We arrived at Shin-Osaka eki, and then we took a train to Osaka eki before changing to a local line towards Osakajokoen eki. From there, we walked in the rain towards the New Otani Hotel before checking in.

Later that evening, it was still raining heavily. In spite of the weather, we met up with students studying at Kinki University. A lot of my friends actually queried about the name. It can give a different connotation to those not familiar with Japan. The Kansai region, where Osaka Prefecture is located, is also known as the Kinki region. Kyoto and Osaka are both located on the Kinki plain.

Sometimes, a word can sound the same but can give a different meaning in another language.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nihon-go wakarimasen

At times, I feel like Bill Murray's character, Bob Harris, in the movie "Lost in Translation". English or ae-go is not that widely spoken here in Japan. Although awareness on English has increased, not many Japanese are fluent in the language. With the exception of hotel and airport staff, I have yet to meet others who are confident enough to use the language.

On the other hand, my grasp on the Japanese language (nihon-go) is rudimentary at best. I know only basic words and simple phrases. Sometimes I regret for not having the time to follow the nihon-go classes held at my office some time back.

I am fortunate that a colleague from the office, Ahmad Zaki, is accompanying me on this trip. He was a student in Japan and therefore, pretty comfortable with nihon-go. As such, I leave him to do most of the talking in this country.

In Tokyo at least, major places like hotels, train stations, shops and roads already have English translations. I give the Japanese credit for taking such an effort because it helps for gaikokujin like me. Having said that, I do find some errors made (small though they may be) to be quite amusing.

At a florist shop in a Tokyo hotel, the word "florist" is spelt "frolist".

At the same hotel in Tokyo, at its restaurant the word "water" is spelt "watter".

In a Kyoto hotel meanwhile, at the hotel's restaurant the word "pumpkin" is spelt "pimpkin".

But perhaps the next one takes the cake. I was browsing through the Internet to search for English bookshops around Tokyo. In one of the websites, the phrase "public speaking" is written as "pubic speaking".

Amusing, but the mistakes and mis-spelling are understandable. English language is not part of Japan's history and culture. So, at this infancy stage, such errors are acceptable. Instead, I think they should be lauded for being brave enough to use a totally foreign language to them.

Nevertheless, their English are definitely better than my Japanese.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Interesting observations on Japanese hotels

Since my work in Japan requires me to move all over the country, arrangements had to be made for me to stay in several hotels. I stayed at the Shinjuku Washington Hotel when I was in Tokyo for the first four days. When I was in Kyoto, I stayed at the Granvia Kyoto. During my duration of stay in Okayama, Granvia Okayama became my base. In Osaka, the hotel that I stayed in was the New Otani Osaka. Now that I am back in Tokyo, I am also back at the Shinjuku Washington Hotel. As my boss will be arriving this Sunday, I will be joining him at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo until the end of my stay in Japan.

There are a few interesting observations that I have made with regards to hotels in Japan (at least, the ones that I stayed in).

The first thing that struck me is the availability of baggage transfer from hotel to hotel. This is especially handy if you are in Japan for a long stay, and that you have many pieces of luggage or that your luggage is bulky. Upon check out from one hotel, you can actually use this service to have your luggage sent to your next destination, even if your next destination is in another city or prefecture. For instance, when I checked out from the Shinjuku Washington Hotel, my luggage was sent to Granvia Okayama. I just brought along what I needed for my two-night stay at Gravia Kyoto. By the time, I arrived in Okayama, my luggage was already waiting for me in my room. This helps a lot as I was able to travel light.

Honestly speaking, I am not sure if such a service exist in Malaysia. Even if it does, I wonder how effective and efficient the service is. If this kind could be introduced in Malaysia (with similar efficiency and quality of service), I am sure it will serve as a value-added service to the hotel industry in particular and tourism in general.

The other thing that I find particularly interesting is that the majority of the porters (or bellboys) working in Japanese hotels are actually ladies. I have not seen female porters in Malaysia. In Japan, however, the reverse is actually true. It is difficult to find male porters. And one thing that I must add here is that the porters in Japan are true professionals. Not only do they bring you and your luggage to your room, they even explain all the facilities available in the room. This is especially useful because facilities from one hotel to another can greatly differ. As such, a short briefing by the porters is not only informative but also helpful. I remember that certain porters in Malaysia only expect tips as soon as they bring your luggage into your room.

Of course, not everything in Japanese hotels is perfect. One little complaint that I have is the lack of wireless Internet access in the hotels. None of the hotels that I have been to actually have wifi, which I find pretty odd. If you are sharing a room with another person, and both want to use the Internet, then you would have to take turns. On this aspect, I think the hotels in Malaysia are slightly more advanced. I have been to a three-star hotel in Malaysia that actually provide wireless Internet connection for its guests. Most hotels have wifi connection at their lobbies at the very least. Not here in Japan though.

Just my two cents worth. Or should it be, my two yen?

Day 8: Trip to Japan (11 April 2010)

We have been scheduled to meet students from Yamaguchi University on this eighth day. The university is located in the Yamaguchi Prefecture in Japan's Chugoku region, with the city of Yamaguchi as its capital. This is perhaps the furthest place to the south-west that I would be in throughout this trip to Japan. Yamaguchi is already towards the southern tip of Honshu island. This part of Japan is well-known for fugu or pufferfish. I have been informed that one needs a license to remove the poison from this fish to ensure that the process is done properly.

We left Okayama by shinkansen heading from Okayama eki to Shin-Yamaguchi eki on board the Hikari Superexpress. There are only two stops between these two stations namely at Fukuyama and Hiroshima. The journey took exactly 1 hour 15 minutes covering a distance of 422 km.

When we arrived at Shin-Yamaguchi eki, we had to board a local train on the Ube line, alighting at an eki called Higashi-Shinkawa.
Throughout the local train journey, I got to see the rustic surroundings of rural Japan. The scenery was completely different from the busy metropolitans of Japan such as Tokyo and Osaka. Here, things look calm, serene and relaxing. Our destination, Higashi-Shinkawa eki, is located in - for lack of a better description - a small town. It is not quite a village, and not quite a big town.

We were met on arrival by the Malaysian students studying at Yamaguchi University. The students here have cars because public transportation is not as efficient or reliable as those found in big cities. After lunch, they took us around the towns located around the area. Initially we planned to return to Okayama earlier. But the students were very friendly and offered great hospitality that we decided to stay on for a little longer.
We took the local train to Shin Yamaguchi eki from another small eki, Maruo, before boarding the 18:21 shinkansen heading for Tokuyama eki on the Kodama Express. At this station, we changed to another shinkansen, this time the 18:51 Hikari Superexpress heading for Okayama eki. Again, the shinkansen made two brief stops at Hiroshima and Fukuyama. We arrived at Okayama at three minutes to eight in the evening.

On a personal note, I think that the Yamaguchi Prefecture is one of the most beautiful sites I have seen in Japan. Its rustic environment makes it all the more special. The place has its own charm. If there is one place that I would like to return to in Japan, it would be Yamaguchi.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Baggage handling at Narita

One of the things that impressed me upon arrival at Narita Airport could be seen at the baggage area. I am sure many of us are familiar with carousels that carry luggage or baggage of passengers who had just disembarked. So far, I have been to a number of airports - almost all airports in Malaysia, Padang in Indonesia, Rome in Italy, Cairo in Egypt, Algiers in Algeria, and Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff in the UK. But Narita (and perhaps all airports in Japan) impresses me the most.

Passengers' baggage are all neatly stacked and arranged in a uniformed manner on the carousel. It looks as if all the baggage are lining up neatly to be picked up by passengers. It's a small thing, I know. Nevertheless, I am impressed. The Japanese airport workers took the trouble of arranging the baggage neatly on the carousel, rather than just putting the baggage on the carousel haphazardly.

Not only does this make everything looks neat and proper, it also gives confidence to passengers that their baggage are handled with care, and not being thrown around as if they were not important.

Sometimes, it is these "small" things that give us some peace of mind.

Day 7: Trip to Japan (10 April 2010)

Another relatively quiet day actually. We decided to visit Hiroshima, the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture. I am pretty sure everyone knows about Hiroshima. Thus far, I have only read about the city. A few months back, there was an exhibition held at the Museum of Asian Art of Universiti Malaya on the atrocities of the atomic bomb that was dropped on 6th August 1945. That was as close as I got to Hiroshima, that is until today.

Again we boarded the Hikari Superexpress. This time we were heading from Okayama eki to Hiroshima eki. The distance is some 160 km, and the journey on the shinkansen took only 30 minutes. There was only one stop before Hiroshima, and that is Fukuyama.
Once reaching Hiroshima city, we took the Hiroden streetcar (picture above) towards the famous A-Bomb Dome. The remains of the building is now the a UNESCO World Heritage site. The atomic bomb was detonated some 600 metres above the building. Miraculously, the structure of the building and in particular, the building's dome, remain intact in spite of the huge blast of energy from the atomic bomb detonation.
Frankly, I cannot begin to describe my feelings to be standing near the A-Bomb Dome (above). I tried to imagine what transpired that fateful day on 6th August 1945. Try as I might, I don't think I can possibly visualise the horrors of the incident. However, to my mind, what is more important is the lessons learnt from this incident. I can only hope that our generation will at least try to understand history so as not to repeat it all over again.

A short walk away from the A-Bomb Dome is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. These two are actually part and parcel of an area called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park Area. There are many monuments here, erected to preserve the memory of the devastation that took place in Hiroshima.

After spending nearly an hour there, we walked towards Hiroshima Castle which is located about 750 metres north of the A-Bomb Dome. The castle was our last stop before boarding a streetcar back to the eki to return to Okayama where we are stationed. All in all, the seventh day serves as a good reminder of history for me. I am fortunate to be able to step on the grounds of Hiroshima. At the very least, my appreciation towards the significance of the event that took place on 6th August 1945 is greater.

Day 6: Trip to Japan (9 April 2010)

Another travelling day. This time from Kyoto, the capital of Kyoto Prefecture to Okayama, the capital of Okayama Prefecture. The distance is approximately 220 km. Journey by road would have taken about three hours, but taking the shinkansen saves a lot of time. We boarded the 09:49 a.m. shinkansen (Hikari Superexpress) from Kyoto eki and we arrived at Okayama eki at 11:17 a.m. The total time taken on this shinkansen journey was 1 hour 18 minutes. The shinkansen stopped at five stations, namely Shin-Osaka, Shin-Kobe, Nishi-Akashi, Himeji and Aioi before reaching Okayama.
By the time we arrived, it was about half an hour before Friday prayer. We were met on arrival at Okayama eki by a PhD student at Okayama University of Science, Arief Mokhtar. He was kind enough to drive us to the Okayama Islamic Centre for Friday prayer with the other Muslim communities in the city.
Later in the afternoon, after lunch, he took us to Handayama Botanical Garden (picture above) where again, we feasted our eyes on the blossoming sakura (as well as other flowers already blossoming with the advent of spring). After that, we checked into our hotel, the Granvia Hotel Okayama.

After resting for a couple of hours, we were again picked up by Arief to meet up with the students from Okayama University of Science. The meeting with the students were cordial, and since I know some of them, it was good to be able to catch up with them.

Another full and productive day came to a close.

Day 5: Trip to Japan (8 April 2010)

We have a bit of free time on this day. Since we were already in Kyoto, we decided to visit the Kiyomizu-dera which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kiyomizu-dera is located in Higashiyama-ku, one of the 11 wards of the city of Kyoto. For lack of a better comparison, I believe "ward" here is equivalent to "mukim" in Malaysia.
We took a taxi from Granvia Hotel, Kyoto to Kiyomizu-dera. The journey took about 15 minutes, but as we were nearing our destination, the traffic got heavier, partly because of the narrow road leading up to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera. We spent nearly two hours at this site, walking up the hill, into Kiyomizu-dera, along with other tourists from all parts of the world, enjoying the breathtaking view of the temple's surrounding. The sakura trees that were in full blossom made the view all the more spectacular.
From Kiyomizu-dera, we walked along Ninenzaka and Sannennzaka (above picture) which are lined up with small shops along the slopes. Most of the shops are tea houses and eateries, and there are also others that sell souvenirs. Sakura trees added splendour to the colours of spring as we walked down the slopes.

After walking for about ten minutes, we reached Kodai-ji. We spent a short while here snapping photographs before leaving. Our next destination was the Gion District. It took us another 20 minutes to get there.
Gion District (above picture) is perhaps famous for those who are familiar with the novel (and later movie) called Memoirs of a Geisha. The novel was largely set in the Gion District. This area is made up of narrow laned which are lined up with old wooden buildings. These buildings include machiya townhouses, traditional Geisha houses, restaurants and eateries, as well as souvenir and craft shops.

We spent about half an hour there before heading back to the hotel. This particular day gave a sense of history to a gaikokujin like me. At the very least, I have a rough idea of how things were in Kyoto way back then.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Day 4: Trip to Japan (7 April 2010)

At Tokyo eki waiting to board the shinkansen.

The fourth day in Japan is full of travelling. After checking out from the Washington Hotel in Shinjuku, we took a train to Tokyo eki. From there, we took the shinkansen headed for Kyoto. The bullet train that we took was the Hikari Superexpress. The journey on this superexpress is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes covering a distance of nearly 500 km. I have been told that a normal journey by road will take about 6 hours. The shinkansen only stopped briefly at four stations (Shin-Yokohama, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu and Nagoya) before arriving at Kyoto.

View of Kyoto from the hotel room.

When we arrived at Kyoto, we promptly checked into the Granvia Hotel which is conveniently located inside the eki itself.

Later that evening, we took the train to Minami-Kusatsu eki to meet up with Malaysian students from Ritsumeikan University. The meeting place, a family restaurant called "Syazeria", took 15 minutes to walk to. We managed to meet up with 15 students from the university - a master's student, 9 final year students and 5 third year students.

It was a very full but productive day. By the time, we returned to the hotel, it was already close to 11:00 p.m.

Personally I was exhausted, but I was happy that our objective for the day has been met.

Day 3: Trip to Japan (6 April 2010)

My Japan trip continues on the third day with a visit to Hachioji, about 45 minutes by train. Hachioji is about 40 km to the west of Shinjuku where I was staying. As the JR line was crowded because of the peak hour, Zaki and I decided to take the Keio line to Keio Hachioji eki. From there, both of us walked towards another eki, JR Hachioji, to board the JR train to Nishi Hachioji eki. Interestingly, the JR Hachioji eki is located within the Sogo complex. Sogo is of course a familiar name to many Malaysians who love shopping.
Anyway, when we arrived at Nishi Hachioji eki, a student from Tokyo University of Technology, Hairul Faizal. He had arranged for the students to meet at a Pakistani restaurant called "Ashiana" which is not far from the eki. The restaurant was small, but more than suited the purpose of the meeting. Including Zaki and myself, there was a total of 19 Malaysians altogether, which essentially took up half of the restaurant. The students are those studying at Tokyo University of Technology and Takushoku University. The restaurant's owner must be smiling with the large turn up.
We returned to our hotel by taking the JR train direct from Nishi Hachioji eki all the way to Shinjuku eki. By the time we arrived, it was already close to 11:00 p.m.
Next stop: Kyoto.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Some initial observations in Japan

When one goes to a country with an entirely different culture, one would certainly notice a lot of uniqueness and differences on life in that country. This is my first trip to Japan. I have been to a few other countries before, but they were either European countries or Northern African countries, on top of neighbouring countries like Singapore and Indonesia.

In all honesty, I expected Japan to be way different compared to the other countries that I have been to. And it certainly is obvious from the moment the aeroplane touched down on the tarmac of Narita Airport. As the plane was taxiing to the disembarkation bay, I noticed the airport workers on the tarmac bowing to the plane passing by as a mark of respect. Similarly, when I boarded the bus from Narita to Shinjuku, every time the bus was about to move to the next stop, the attendant at the stop would bow down in respect. I find this aspect of the Japanese culture interesting, as it seems that respect is embedded within their society. They do it because showing respect is a part of their norm. It is not something that is forced on them - at least, that's how I view it.

After two days in Tokyo, I have done quite a bit of travelling in order to meet up with Malaysian students around the capital city. Here, I get to experience first hand the well-known efficiency of Japanese transportation. The accuracy and efficiency is excellent, bar none. Honestly, if public transport in Malaysia can be half this efficient, I think most of us would feel more than happy.

Cleanliness is again another enviable trait of the Japanese people. You could hardly see any litter or cigarettes being thrown on the streets, walkways, trains or underpasses. I noticed that almost all parts of the city that I have gone to have signs that forbid people from smoking on the streets. Do this in Malaysia, and suddenly you will get complains left, right and centre.

Another fascinating observation is the reading culture. In the past, I actually envisaged that almost everyone who commutes would be reading a book when they are in the trains or buses. However, this is not the case (at least from my first two days of observing). About half of the commuters would read (books, comics, newspapers or magazines), but interestingly the other half would be busy texting messages on their handphones. I guess with the advent of technology, people have begun to shift from reading books to texting messages.

I have about two more weeks to go. I am pretty sure I will get the chance to experience more of the Japanese way of life. I will certainly jot them down here if I have the opportunity.

Day 2: Trip to Japan (5 April 2010)

There were two places that we needed to go to on this second day. The first was Shin Okobu, and the second was Hiyoshi. We were meeting students from Waseda University at the former and Keio University at the latter.

Zaki and I walked towards the Shinjuku Station. We were scheduled to meet a student from Waseda University at Shin Okobu. We travelled by train from Shinjuku to Shin Okobu.
The student, Khairi Faiz, was already waiting for us in front of the eki (station). As it was already around lunch time, we decided to have lunch at a quaint little Indonesian restaurant called "Restoran Merah Putih" at Shin Okobu (picture above). It's quite easy to miss the restaurant as it is located on the second floor and it is very small (which is typical of most shops in Japan). The food to me was average, but at least it gave a reasonable alternative to the food normally found in Japan.

After we were done discussing with Khairi Faiz, we left the restaurant to head for Hiyoshi. It was raining quite heavily at that time, and we had to buy umbrellas from the convenient shop just across the restaurant. From there, we walked back to Shin Okobu Station to go to our next destination, Hiyoshi.

Upon arriving at the eki at Hiyoshi, we were met by a student studying at Keio University, Wan Mohd Aizuddin. He took us to Keio University, first by walking through the Hiyoshi Campus then to the adjacent Yagami Campus where engineering and science students are located. We met two more students there, Nazirul Afham who is a final year student, and Abul Hassan Johari who is a master's student. Later, we went to a family restaurant nearby for dinner and we were joined by five more undergraduate students who just arrived in Japan about two weeks ago.

After everything that needed to be done was done, we walked back to the Hiyoshi eki, and travelled by train back to Shinjuku where we were staying. Unlike the train journey earlier, this time the trains that we took were crowded. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, it was already 10:00 p.m.

We were definitely exhausted. On my part though, I am happy that we managed to cover two universities on this second day.

Day 1: Trip to Japan (4 April 2010)

I arrived at Narita Airport just before 7:00 a.m. local time. The flight was smooth aside from the drunken professor who sat beside me who kept drinking whiskey from take-off non-stop. [This is a strong case for not having liquor on board a flight]. Anyhow, the weather upon arrival was somewhat cold for spring. I came to Japan with a colleague, Ahmad Zaki Udah, to carry out a couple of tasks for the organisation that require us to meet Malaysian students who are studying at 15 universities.

From the airport, we took the bus to the Shinjuku Washington Hotel. We arrived at the hotel pretty early, just before 10:00 a.m., and hence we were not able to check in just yet. Coincidentally, one of Zaki's old friend invited him over to a hanami at Shinjuku Gyoen that afternoon. We left our luggage at the hotel and walked from the hotel to the park. There were literally thousands of people there enjoying the picturesque view of sakura in full bloom. It was quite an experience really to be able to view the blooming sakura in the park.
After the hanami, we returned to the hotel by taxi, as we were already too exhausted from the flight, lack of sleep and the walking (from the hotel to the park). After checking in at the hotel, I had a short rest before going out again for dinner with Zaki.

To sum up, the experience of being able to view the sakura on the first day was a rather befitting welcome for a first-timer like me. Hopefully, this memory will remain as something special and unique in the years to come.