Monday, November 7, 2016


Early Wednesday morning, as I was driving to work, the weather announcer told me that "It's 21 degrees in Naha now. It's getting chilly now, so bring a coat". 21 degrees is "chilly"? Ridiculous.

A banyan tree ("gajumaru") at Sogenji in Naha.

A closer look at the huge tree.
Except that it did feel a little chilly. The day was cloudy and quite windy. The sea had turned slate grey instead of its usual crystal-clear blue-green hue, and I found myself wishing for long sleeves. Autumn had happened, as suddenly as flipping a switch.

But it's too early to break out the kotatsu, pull on a wool sweater and start heating the mulled wine. The grey clouds broke up by evening and the wind calmed the next day. It may technically be autumn here, but it's nothing like autumn up north; there's no rustling of fall leaves and no early morning frost.

Fall fashion says "knitted caps" so you wear a knitted cap, even if it's hot enough for t-shirts and sunglasses. Of course, biker fashion says "black leather" even in high summer, so it's not as if young men are immune either.

Early mornings may be as cool as 21-22 degrees now, but we get well over 25 degrees later in the day. The sudden rains have stopped, and the air turned dry and clear, with high, bright skies. It's warm enough to go swimming if you want, but the weather is really perfect to go walking in the sun, or while away an afternoon at an outdoor coffee shop.

Crossing a canal in Naha.
Now that it's cool enough, we spent the past weekend walking through Naha. We left home near city hall, walked along the monorail line and had lunch at a very good shabu-shabu restaurant called "Ganaha" near Miebashi station. Great place; we'll have to go there again.

We walked on to the Sogenji ruins, then up to Omoromachi, the new business and shopping district. Had some coffee, browsed a bookstore (I need something new to read now that I've finished "電車の運転"), bought ingredients for dinner, then we returned home on the monorail in the late afternoon sun. Life is good.

A temporary izakaya in a parking lot near the Ryubo department store. Plenty warm enough to sit outside at night.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Summer Holiday

It's the tail end of October, and I've just had my summer holiday. OIST actually granted me two days of summer leave even though I started only in September.

Cape Manzamo.

One part of my new job is user training. I've prepared two training classes — one an introduction to HPC, and one on GPU programming — and I gave them both last week. They went decently well; better than I expected for a first course draft. Seemed like a perfect time to take two days off for a four-day weekend with Ritsuko here in Okinawa. With the move and the job we haven't had much downtime together in a while.

Summer vacation in late October may sound daft, but it's still about 30° here most every day; summery enough for me. And four days is plenty of time since we don't travel anywhere. A week at some vacation spot is just 4-5 days in practice without the travel and packing time.

On Saturday I finally got to see Shin Godzilla, the first new genuine Toho Cinema Godzilla movie in years:

This is a great movie — if you like kaijuu movies, of course. It's classic Godzilla, but starting over with a new origin story. Original Godzilla was about nuclear testing; this is thinly veiled commentary on the political (mis)management of the Touhoku disaster and Fukushima meltdown.  It's really an ensemble movie about politics as much as about a big lizard with bad temper.

Good casting overall — several characters bear more than a passing resemblance to real politicians. The female lead (who is supposed to be a Japanese-American) could have benefited from an actor with a little more (or, you know, any) subtlety and at least a basic grasp of English.

Godzilla itself lives up to the part; they really manage to convey the sheer mass and scale of the monster. It really feels physical - the CG effects in most movies feel like empty shells projected onto a screen, but this feels like it could really have been an actor in a rubber suit. That is high praise.

The story? It's a Godzilla movie. Monster appears. Monster destroys Tokyo. People flail about trying to stop monster from doing same. The rampaging and action sequences are extremely well done, and, again have a sense of physicality to them that many movies fail to convey. Excellent movie. I sincerely hope they're working on the next one.

The Okinawa Industrial Fair was at Onoyama park this weekend, just a few hundred meters from home. It's a yearly exhibition for Okinawan producers of consumer and industrial goods. Sounds dry, perhaps, but it's anything but.

Rows upon rows of tents, all selling or offering
something, a lot of it edible or drinkable.

It's a big family festival that mixes serious industrial exhibitions, university and NPO projects, and small shops showing (and usually selling) their goods. You find hot sauces, hair tonics, music instruments, CNC casts, awamori, cement, beer, flowers, solar panels, robots, prosthetics, chiffon cakes, kariyushi shirts, power stones, salt, PVC pipes, graves,  and so on and so on. And of course lots and lots of places that sell food and drink.

An underwater Crown-of-thorns hunter robot by students at a technical college. The starfish eat coral, and can devastate an area. This one has a vision system to recognize the specific starfish, and syringes at the front that inject vinegar which kills them.

An exoskeleton showcased by a couple of students at a technical high school. Mostly passively compliant with counter-springs, though the hands are servo-controlled. The kids in the audience loved the demo.

Okinawan-style grave. The price of a car — though you obviously get more years of use with the grave.

One company displayed the manhole covers they produce for the various local municipalities in the prefecture. Cool, though they weren't for sale.

It's spread out over much of the park, with hundreds of outdoor stalls, and an indoor exhibition at the budokan. We spent all of Sunday afternoon there, and still had to skip one section altogether. It's big, it's noisy and it's a lot of fun to wander around, eat and drink, and look at the crowds and at all the things on offer.

One of the tent areas, with the Budokan housing the main industrial exhibition in the background.

The Kerama islands is a group of beautiful islands in the Pacific with coral reefs, white beaches and few people. It's a good area for snorkeling and diving. It's also just half an hour away from Naha by boat.

A fishing boat berth in the Naha harbour area.

So on Monday we took a half-day snorkelling tour (with Marine House Seasir) to the Kerama islands. Breakfast at home, go to the harbour and on to the boat, two hours snorkelling among beautiful reefs, then back in time for a shower and lunch at home. Perfect!

The colourful fish on the reef really stand out when you catch them over the sandy bottom

A determined-looking trio against the sun-dappled surface.

A section of coral showcasing the variety in the area.

It was a fairly big boat with almost thirty people on board. These people are doing a trial dive, not just snorkelling.

 A fun day trip and a great summer vacation. Have to do it again some weekend soon. Next time perhaps try diving myself; it looks like a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Typhoon addendum

So we survived our first typhoon here in Okinawa intact. It was — and is — quite a strong one, but also fairly small, and it veered off enough that it didn't hit the main island directly. 

Our cellphones alerted us with a flood warning along the coast in mid-afternoon. A couple of evacuation notices followed — just invitations to evacuate for those that wanted to. The weather grew worse, and when we went to bed by late evening it was obvious even to us that going outside would be reasonably stupid. But there was never any danger indoors. We went to sleep with the sound of the wind howling outside.

There never was much reason to worry, of course. Okinawa gets a few typhoons every year, so buildings and infrastructure can handle it just fine. When Ritsuko went to the supermarket in the morning, people were loading up on snacks, beer and awamori, clearly focused on making the best of an evening spent at home, not worrying about the typhoon.

We still had strong gusty winds early this morning, though it calmed down a few hours later. A few residents were outside picking up fallen leaves and branches as I was leaving, but mostly people were getting up for another weekday at work or school.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Typhoon #18

We got our first typhoon here in Naha. As I write this around lunchtime, typhoon #18 is south of the main island, and the weather is still fine, with a breeze and scattered rain showers. But it's a small typhoon with a strong center (50m/s winds with up to 70m/s gusts) so the conditions can turn ugly very quickly.

Typhoon #18 at lunch.
As a result OIST has suspended operations today. While we could have gone to work as normal this morning, the buses and monorail have already stopped running. Most shops are closing already as well.

It doesn't affect my work a lot. I just logged in remotely and working as usual. A lot of other staff can spend the day at home preparing for the typhoon, and researchers can surely keep themselves busy writing papers and grant applications.  But I know that this is a major problem for some people.

The facility management division people have been running ragged clearing the outside and shoring up buildings with sandbags and tarps. Lab 4 is currently under construction, so the area is stripped of vegetation and the red soil laid bare. If large amounts of that soil runs out into the Onna bay, that would kill the local wildlife and ruin the fishery and seaweed business.

Some research labs also need special contingency measures. Some labs have long-running experiments that need attention. There are labs with tanks full of zebra-fish, nematodes, fruit flies or various kinds of plants, and they all need food, water and constant care, typhoon or not.  So while most people stay away from OIST today, others have been coming in — no doubt equipped with instant ramen and sleeping bags — and will spend the typhoon caring for them.

Power cuts are not likely here in Naha. But we still bought some water bottles, and we've made sure we have everything we need for at least two-three days. We're as prepared as we'll ever be.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Everywhere you go here, people are wearing colourful short-sleeved shirts called "Kariyushi". They're similar to Hawaiian Aloha shirts, but dressier, with an upright collar and often more muted, abstract designs, and they're worn buttoned up, not open. The name "Kariyushi" means happy or joyous. And I love them.

Me, in my newest kariyushi shirt. I don't think I'll quit my day job for a modelling career just yet.

In the 1970s a hotel association designed Hawaiian shirts with Okinawa-inspired designs for hotel staff and guides to wear. They proved quite popular, and started spreading beyond the tourism industry. In the 1990s an association trademarked "Kariyushi wear". To call it "kariyushi" the shirt must be sewn in Okinawa and "promote Okinawan tourism" - meaning, I guess, no tacky patterns, logos or things like that. The shirts quality and their image improved, and people started wearing them for "casual Friday" and other informal situations.

The kariyushi shirts got a lot of national exposure in 2000 when world leaders wore the shirts while attending a summit in Okinawa, and the shirt got another push when it was promoted nationally as an alternative to suit and tie for the very successful "Cool Biz" summer campaign. You can see cabinet ministers attending meetings in kariyushi shirts every summer.

Former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Mekere Morauta. Koizumi always rocked kariyushi shirts; current prime minister Abe, on the other hand, just looks sad and a little lost, like he misses his tie.

Shirts are available at clothing stores and department stores in a large range of designs and fabrics. A cheap shirt might cost a few thousand yen, while a formal one made from Okinawan fabric can easily cost twenty thousand yen or more. During summer (April to November) they're worn everywhere in Okinawa, including the Okinawa government assembly, government workers, bankers and regular office workers; from young fashionable women to old Pachinko-playing guys. Many companies have their own special designs for their customer-facing employees.

A lone salaryman nursing an Awamori in Naha. He likely came here straight from the office.

The shirts are considered formal wear. Not only are they fine for banking and office work; people wear them for weddings and other formal occasions. There's even black unadorned shirts for funerals. They're so common that when you see a guy in a suit in the summer, he's probably here on a business trip from outside the island.

Office workers waiting for the bus.

I really love these shirts. They're cool and lightweight during summer. They'll dry quickly when you get caught in a sudden rain storm. And while the patterns are colourful patterns and the style is relaxed, they still manage to look neat, even proper. Much better than a rumpled suit jacket and soggy see-through white shirt with sweat stains.

They're the perfect working clothes for the hot, humid weather here in Japan, and I can only hope they will one day become as accepted on the mainland as here in Okinawa.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Naha! Internet!

We've arrived, settled in and I've started working. Lots of things to write about, so I'm just going to summarize briefly.

We finally got internet! A 1Gb fiber connection straight into our apartment. The installation was far more involved than I thought; three people and a lifter truck that laid fiber from the nearest substation along the telephone poles to the building, then in through the telephone conduit.

Laying down fiber along the telephone poles, then in to the house.

Now we have a fiber connection in the hallway and a router for the network and IP telephone. I get about 350-400Gb/s to Tokyo from here, with 40ms ping time. Not bad for an island out in the Pacific ocean.

A view from work as I was leaving for home.

We got here Tuesday last week. A lot of our luggage was plants, since we couldn't send them with the moving company. We sent the larger plants by post. Amazingly, all but one seem to have not only survived, but are actually thriving in our new, little garden. My coffee plant already needs a bigger pot.

The apartment really exceeds our expectations. Airy and light, with high ceilings. Really easy to live in. We're in central Naha, with four supermarkets and one department store within easy walking distance, but the neighbourhood itself is very quiet. The tiny garden in the back really adds a little extra. Perfect.

Our things arrived over Wednesday to Saturday, with the stuff from Osaka delivered Friday. Now it's one week later, we've actually managed to unpack, assemble and install everything. We're still picking up a couple of storage boxes, a kitchen cabinet and a carpet for my desk next weekend. But other than that, we're all moved in.

Nice café just a stone's throw from the apartment. A bit expensive, but really good when you want to sit for an hour or two. There's power plugs, wifi and big tables for laptops and notebooks.

I finally got a standing desk. Adjustable legs and a big desk surface, and a high chair for sitting down without adjusting the desk. All from IKEA, and works perfectly. The only downside is that the surface is too thick for the clamp on my small vise. Have to find some solution to that. I also need a carpet to avoid floor damage.

My half of the bedroom. The standing desk works great, and the high chair is comfortable when I want to sit down.

We had a lot of paperwork to do at city hall — formally moving in, registering our new address and parking space, get certificates of residence, register an inkan, updating my residence card and My Number card and so on. I thought I'd spend the rest of the day chasing documents from counter to counter.

Instead the information desk took all our documents and directed us to a counter, where a clerk looked it over and told us "This looks fine. Welcome to Naha! It will be about two hours; if you like we can call you when it's done."

We went to lunch, came back two hours later, and after just a few minutes the phone calls and our number comes up. Everything was done. Simple. Easy. Quick. When I later went to the police to change the address on my driver's license the experience was much the same. No waiting around, no stress, no running in circles.

Naha city hall.

The weather is more pleasant than Osaka so far. It's cooler, and there's usually a breeze to keep the edge off the heat. We can normally keep the windows open instead of using the air conditioner. But it's very humid on the other hand; mould is a constant worry, and drying laundry takes forever. We got a dehumidifier for the bedroom this weekend; see if it improves things a bit.

And sudden rainstorms (called "squalls" here) are common. The first day here we had four quick rainstorms in succession — one with thunder — in between clear blue skies. I got caught out in one, and was completely soaked. It can go from sunny to wall-of-water in a minute or two. Twenty minutes later it's clear and sunny again. The weather forecast is not terribly useful here.

Naha monorail station in Omoromachi. There are several malls and other stores around in the area; great when you're moving in and need things for your new place.

The supermarkets have a whole separate section for things designed to kill insects. Cockroaches of course, but also ants, moths and other bugs. The apartment came with insect traps in every corner and mesh screens on every window. There is good reason for this; we've had a couple of cockroaches visiting us so far, and something has already taken nibbles off the leaves of my coffee plant.

Naha is hilly. It's also fairly hot during summer, with lots of rain, sudden squalls and high humidity. There's also a lot of traffic. Which all means it's not the ideal place for a bicycle. Nevertheless, biking has apparently increased the past few years, and it's not uncommon to see bicycles as well as bike shops in the city. I did bring my bicycle; we'll see how much I'll actually use it.

Student on a bike passing by while they were installing the fiber for us.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On our way

So, we're finally leaving for Naha. That typhoon I was so worried about? It has been very obliging so far. We feared it would head straight to Okinawa or Osaka, but instead it stopped on Monday morning, turned, and has been on a slow walkabout around an empty patch of ocean ever since.

Typhoon #10, from Saturday lunch up until Wednesday at 9:00.

Our things managed to leave Osaka in time for the planned delivery date, and our flight this afternoon should be right on time. Good typhoon, have a cookie.

Our biggest problem, believe it or not, has been the house-plants. We have a number of plants that we really like — my sort-of-bonsai and my coffee plant among them — but the moving company doesn't accept plants. They don't want people to complain if they die, and I can understand that. The parcel services accept plants — but only for corporate customers. Again, I suspect they just don't want the inevitable complaints.

The post office, on the other hand, has no problem with plants. We simply take the small ones in our bags, and send the large ones in the mail. Not the kindest way to treat the plants of course, but it's just for a couple of days. And we would have thrown them away otherwise, so if they die it's not the end of the world either.

I've changed the design here a little, by the way. I had a pile of custom CSS that was becoming impossible to maintain. Now I just use one of the standard templates. I'd still want to tweak the colours a bit, but this will do for now. Next up Okinawa!