Thursday, September 17, 2015

Back from my travels

bild (1400x1050)Yes, it has been a while…

September shaped up as the busiest travel month of the year for me.  After returning from Maastricht, I made a wide circle through Birmingham (UK), Vence (France), and Tokyo (Japan).  The visits were all good and I’m turning optimistic about our prospects again.

For most of the year, my business wrestled with financial and legal issues.  In August, we laid them to rest, freeing money that could be used for people, services, and tooling.  We paid back salaries; we reorganized the executive team.

Gratifyingly, w.We began ticking off milestones  again: meetings with commercial partners, appointment of our regulator (the Notified Body), qualification of suppliers and manufacturers. 

With work and a little luck, we’ll be in-market next summer.

DSC04907 (1400x931)I landed at Heathrow after a 16 hour flight from Narita through Amsterdam.  The sun chased us, I watched American Sniper and The Graduate and held off sleeping in anticipation of landing at 7 pm. 

Someone nicked my tablet in the executive lounge in Japan, both annoying and uncharacteristic.  I used Google’s Device Manager to post a contact number and reward on screen if anyone should turn it on (and to erase it if anyone logged in). 

Fortunately, it was replacement-insured: I always take the protection on phones and computers.

DSC05482 (1400x1156)Heathrow was, unfortunately, a mess. The lines for Border Control wound from concourse to concourse.  It took over two hours to reach the front of the queue.  The fellow just ahead of me got pulled out of line for taking pictures of the line, and was made to delete his photographs.  I laid low. 

How long have  you been out of the country, asked the agent.  “Ten days”  Two weeks if you count time in line? 

Quite.  We speculated about whether my upcoming dual citizenship would help?  He thought it would slow me at the US border, although the British wouldn’t care.

DSC04906 (889x1400)It will take a few days for me to catch up: on sleep, emails, jet lag, photos, and follow-ups.  The house has turned over in my absence: we now have myself, a seldom-seen German couple, a pair of young Portuguese nurses, two mismatched Hungarians, and a sweet Indian IT guy.  If I stay long enough, the whole world will rotate past me.

I’ll back-fill the blog as I get pictures processed, working ahead and back from this point.  A week, ten days, and it will be like I was never gone.

Still, I’ve missed the writing and conversations.  It’s good to be back.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tokyo: In one day…

DSC05006 (1400x933) Stitch

I arranged to stay an extra day in Japan after our business ended.  It is a long trip and a great opportunity, and I wanted time to immerse in more traditional culture and wander the city independently.  But how much can anyone reasonably do in a city of 13 million people in twelve hours?

The first decision was whether to stay in Tokyo or take a train to someplace smaller.  Friends provided me with a really good guide, and the travel was very reasonably priced.  But spending hours on a train was less appealing than hours immersed in the streets: I decided to stay within the city.  Frommers suggested an ideal one-day Tokyo itinerary, and I adapted my plans from Arthur’s template.

I also relocated to a hotel near the Ueno Station.  It’s more city-central, good for its proximity both to Ueno Park and to trains for Narita airport.  Accommodation prices were reasonable; lots of shops and restaurants lay in easy walking distance.

DSC05123 (1400x933)Once planned and positioned, I headed into the subway, then a winding walk through roadworks, to make the 9 am opening of Hama-rikyu Gardens.  These are absolutely gorgeous: broad grasslands and reflecting ponds, delicate flowers and puffy evergreens.  The highlights and variations of light across the trees, dwarfed by hazy blue buildings, is lovely.  Traditional lacquered tea houses and wooden bridges dot the park, geometrical precision nestled into the rolling foliage.  I spent two hours walking the paths and reading the stories. The best are the 300-year-old pine, bent and rambling, and the ancient stone quays that hosted supply ships and visiting dignitaries in Imperial times.

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Cruises leave from the edge of the garden to motor up the Sumida River to Asakusa, the traditional entertainment  district.  The salt waterway used to be where Tokyo met the sea, now it is landfill sectioned by colourful bridges and rimmed by cliffs of apartment buildings.  The 45 minute trip is nice for being on a boat and watching the city scroll past, thought-provoking for the dense sprawl and upward growth everywhere. I ended up reflecting about how societies balance their desire to become ‘modern’ in the western sense yet still retain traditional artifacts and unique traditions.  I almost missed my stop, at the base of the SkyTree.

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The Sensoji Temple complex is a few blocks from the landing.  Founded in A.D. 628 to house the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness, it consists of a half-dozen temples set among gardens, inscribed stones, and bronze statuary.  Crowded with both tourists and parishioners, there’s both tension and balance in competing commercial and spiritual roles of the site.  I seek the latter, reading the inscribed supplications, joining the incense, taking a quiet sit in the temple courtyards.

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Surrounding the temples is Nakamise Dori, endless alleyways of small tourist shops and restaurants.  I sampled the cutout pancakes filled with chocolate, bought some small traditional souvenirs, and searched for Pokemon gear requested by my daughter (the fad looks thoroughly dead, replaced by Transformers and Hello Kitty).

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I broke with the travel guide to walk a couple of miles back to Uedo Park.  The French call it flâneur, a casual wander “amid the ebb and flow of movement” in a city.  It was unhurried, a chance to step into a street shrine, to sidestep delivery trucks, to visit a small hardware store, to wonder about the profusion of electrical and telephone wires overhead.  There are relatively frequent bilingual signs and maps so no real danger of getting lost, and people were gentle and smiling about pointing the way if I asked.

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I wrapped the day with a wander among the swan boats floating in the Ueno Pond and dinner in a all-you-can eat and drink shabu shabu bar near the station.  3000 yen (20 euros) buys 100 minutes at the buffet, with two broths, four meats, and bottomless beer and sake.  It’s a light meal resembling fondue; at the end, noodles are cooked in the broth to make a final soup.

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As always, more pictures at my Flickr page.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tokyo: Navigating the subways

DSC05432 (1400x933)When I last visited Tokyo in the mid-80’s, ‘finding my way out of the train station’ was the biggest challenge.  The station had many labyrinthine levels,  the signage was impenetrable, and there was no natural flow of people leaving towards the streets.  I remember standing stock still, trying to get my bearings, while a viscous tide of commuters flowed and eddied all around me.

But it’s a mistake to give up on mastering the subway system.  It’s faster and much cheaper than a taxi, the signage is considerably improved, and the system has its own logic.

Begin with the ticketing area: It’s easier than it looks.

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Find the map, and your location (marked with the arrow)

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Okay, more complicated than the Underground.  But the most common destinations lie on the central ring, or a couple of stops off of it.  A street map (or Google maps) will suggest the nearest stop to your destination, and then it’s a matter of standing and searching until you find it.

DSC05352 (1400x915)Once you find your destination, the key is in knowing that the numbers on the map represent the fare needed to reach that destination.  Remember the number, then move to the ticket machine.  Find the number, pay it in coin, and retrieve a ticket.

Follow the colour for your line to a train platform.  Routes are posted along the pillars, check that your destination is listed. If not, you’re probably one platform off, and just need to slide to the adjacent one.

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Look down: stand in the market chute to enter the train.  As it pulls in, check whether it is a Rapid Train (indicated in LED messages on the side), which skips stops.

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Once on board, the guidance is bilingual and visual: there should be no problem counting stops to the destination.

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The ticket machines at the exits work a lot like the Underground: slip it into the slot in the turnstyle, the gates open, retrieve it on exit unless it is your last stop.  If you somehow miscalculated, there is a fare adjustment window / station to one side where you can top up the tickets.

A side benefit of the subway is that a lot of really good ‘hole in the wall’ restaurants lie beneath the stations.  Take a moment to check out the possibilities: we found a really good sashimi bar along the tracks beneath Tokyo Station,near the Marunouchi business district

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Maybe Tokyo has become more international-friendly, maybe I’ve become more adept and confident from riding trains in Europe.  But it seems a lot easier than 30 years ago.