Osaka

Japan felt oddly familiar. Maybe it was all the Orientals I'd spent so much time with in Milwaukee. Maybe it was that I was expecting to feel completely lost and confused and only felt mildly so. Maybe it's the way that Japan has assimilated so much western culture. Maybe it was because I was so tired.

One thing that did feel odd was the journey from the airport to Osaka: first off it was the shuttle train from the terminal to the main building. I felt like I was in a tube full of Japanese tourists, before I realised that I was the tourist. Then it was the bus ride: on the left-hand side of the road. It felt so odd, I could tell I'd been away for five weeks. The monorail was cute, though. For nearly 44 years I'd only ever ridden trains with two rails, then in the space of a few days I'd ridden two with one apiece. How quickly I'd changed and become a well-travelled man (I now have three stamps in my passport. I wonder if Denmark'll give me one on the way back?). Hull will seem so small (as usual).

I arrived at my hotel: I'd found travel directions on the web site of a conference that had used this hotel - having done the journey, I'd not like to have done it without them. This has to be the smallest hotel room I've ever stayed in: then you look at pictures of the capsule hotels and realise that you're not so badly off (actually, I'm told that for a business hotel, my room was fairly average - i.e. you can touch the side walls on both sides without getting out of bed). I unpacked, moving the copy of Gideon's Bible to one side (as I carry my own). Quick doubletake: since when did Gideon's do "The Teachings of Buddha"? Just as you think you're on familiar territory....

The view from my hotel

.... like taking a taxi to the National Cardiovascular Centre on Monday. I showed the driver the name (the Japanese study English at school, but can often read better than hear, so I had everything written down). She didn't know what it was. Neither did anyone else in the vicinity. Quick panic, followed by a mad dash back to the hotel to get the Japanese name and all was fine. I won't make that mistake again.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I got up on Sunday (early again - more jet-lag) and headed for breakfast. I opted for "Japanese" rather than "European". I have no idea what it all was (mostly egg, fish & vegetables at a guess), but it tasted all right. Once I'd worked out how to eat it, of course. In my usual fashion, I tried to observe the others in the restaurant for hints. Every single Japanese there was eating the Western breakfast! (Eventually someone else had the "Japanese", otherwise I'd probably still be there). After this I caught a train into Osaka to take a look around. Once I'd sorted out how the ticket machine worked, that was. And what the fare was. Alright, then, once I'd given in and asked for help.

The part of Osaka I opted to go to (Nippombashi) was selected because it was a direct train (not that I knew that initially - I assumed it was one change but the overground train on one line turned into the subway train on a different line - the only way you could tell was that the announcements suddenly became bi-lingual) and it was fairly central. The areas around Nippombashi are mainly retail, with the odd temple hidden away for good measure. I opted to walk down this short covered shopping street. Two hours later, I decided maybe I'd better stop for lunch. Of course, I can't read the menus, but the Japanese were ready for me: they have plastic models of the dishes outside the restaurants. The one I initially opted to eat in had a small raised wooden floor and a row of slippers just inside the door... I knew enough to know that I was about to enter social gaffe land and retreated to the safety of a more open place with a menu consisting of pictures, where I had a rather tasty noodle soup. I then found Mr. Donut, a store recommended by the Rough Guide (and all sadistic dentists touting for business). "Fab" doesn't even start to cover it.

Downtown Osaka

During my wanderings, I encountered techie heaven. Imagine PC World with Dixons on top, then Game on top of that, then Staples (without so much office stuff and more techie bits) on top of that. Then double the inventory & pack it closely together. Oh yes, add in Halford's bike collection. Sigh... I'm told that Tokyo has a whole area full of stores like that one. Will I come out alive? More to the point, will my bank balance? But that's for next week. Bolstered by a set of Octopus balls (I managed seven of the eight before deciding I'd had enough - the Octopus was OK, but the batter was a bit too sickly even for me), I headed back to my hotel. Via, of course, Mr Donut - except that I couldn't find another store (the original one was too far from the station): but I did find "cookhouse" and bought a set of Eccles-cake-like things. They weren't sultanas, but beans. Not a good tea, all round.

Monday, as I've mentioned, found me at the NCVC in the company of Prof. Chiba. Japan was the first of my visits to be arranged and after so long of corresponding with him and Aki Matsumoto of the training division, it seemed strange to actually meet them. I spent the day being introduced to various people (including the Director General of the Hospital) before going to his home to meet his wife and DOG (the capitals are intentional - this is a German Shepherd that would make a Great Dane feel puny). I was introduced to sukiyaki, which Prof. Chiba claimed was the equivalent of the American barbecue - i.e. the only meal the husband cooks. They were very good company and I played my part as the poor foreigner who kept failing to pick food up with chopsticks.

Tuesday saw me at Osaka University Hospital, in the company of Prof. Matsumura, who explained the Hospital Information system and demonstrated various of the features. Amongst their armoury is a huge satellite dish which isn't for bedside TV, but for teleconferencing with 30 other sites. In the UK we try to do this with a telephone line. In common with the NCVC, I spent a certain amount of time removing my shoes. Noticeably this was only in computing labs - it was nice to see due respect, but I suspect I won't be able to import this idea to Hull.

After work, we went for a meal in a very traditional Japanese restaurant in which we were shown to a private room, in the centre of which was a very low table. I was working out how to arrange myself on the cushion beside it (the Rough Guide had said that cross-legged was acceptable) when Prof. Matsumura pointed out that there was a pit under the table to put your legs in. "Pit" wasn't quite the word I used to describe myself. The meal was (I'm told) very traditionally Japanese: lots of small dishes, exquisitely presented. With a certain quantity of raw fish. All of which I enjoyed - even the shrimp that had to be top & tailed by hand prior to eating. Just in case, I washed it all down with a large quantity of alcohol (mostly sake, which tastes like a very smooth vodka, only more so) - all in the interests of health, honest.

Wednesday was a bad language day. Not that I spent it swearing, more not understanding. It started with a failure to realise that I needed to catch two trains to get to the Hospital, rather than one, because I couldnít read the "change here for" signs (although I eventually recognised the name of my destination station, so took a guess). I then got lost in the Hospital. I went to where I thought I should be, but it looked like a clinical examination area, so (not wanting to open the wrong door) I tried the next floor and then had to be guided back to where I had been previously (itís often been remarked upon that Hospitals all look the same: when you canít read the signs itís especially true). In the evening I caught a train downtown in search of an Internet cafe. I caught the same train as I had on Saturday (or so I thought) and was therefore somewhat surprised to arrive at Umeda rather than Nippombashi (again, I failed to understand the "change here for..." announcements). Still, it gave me the chance to see another part of the city, including the 11-floor HEP Five building, complete with Ferris wheel on the roof. I finally found an Internet connection (the Kinko copy shops are wonderful places), although I had to get help to use their FTP program, as the prompts were all in Japanese. I normally get by in Windows as I know the layout of the dialogs and the order they come in, so know which button to click and which edit box to complete from this. Such ideas are fine until you meet a brand new program. Once Iíd done all my e-mailing and FTP-ing, I went in search of some food. The waitress in the cafe I selected brought me a menu - in words rather than pictures without any English anywhere. I was reduced to the somewhat humiliating experience of going outside the shop and pointing at one of the plastic models in the window. The alternative was to go hungry, and pride is easier to swallow in such circumstances (and not very filling, either).

In between all that, Iíd seen some very interesting software applications, especially in augmented reality and analysis of ultrasound images of the heart using chaos theory.

One other thing I saw in Umeda was a building with a white illuminated cross outside. I decided to investigate what a Japanese church looked like, only to discover that it was a wedding boutique/marriage hall. The Japanese (I was informed) have taken to western-style church weddings, so many have experienced a church service - but only the wedding service (much like most of the UK, then).

If itís Thursday, then it must be lasers and microscopes. Whilst being shown many fascinating projects, I came across an image of a bull sculpture, a mere 10 micro-metres long and 7 micro-metres high micromachine (about the size of a red blood cell). Itís quite a famous picture, so it was interesting to meet some of the people responsible for producing it.

The VR lab showing the Ultrasound and single-camera 3DRemote Ultrasound probe positioningFootball and Robots
Friday was Nara day. Nara is an ancient city just outside Osaka. I say "just outside", but Japanese cities tend not to stop, but rather run into one another seamlessly (something like Leeds & Bradford). In keeping with the Japanese way of doing things, it also boasts one of the newest hi-tech universities. It was there that I spent the morning looking through VR glasses at the inside of a kidney (amongst some other rather spiffing telemedicine demos - did I covet? Only half the stuff. Well, maybe 75%).

NaraMore Nara
I spent the afternoon being shown some of the sights of Nara, including the largest wooden building in the world (it's not the original - that one was destroyed. Apparently this one's not as big!), which housed certainly the largest statue I've ever seen - a Buddha, naturally. It's this curious mix of the ancient with the high-tech that makes Japan so culturally interesting - and confusing.

A rather large wooden temple

I was starting to get the hang of Osaka's subway - I'd even learnt to recognise some of the station names in Kanji. Therefore it had to be time to leave, which I did via Narita airport. The Jumbo (for a local flight!) had a video screen on which they showed pictures from a camera at the front of the plane and then - once airborne - from below it. It beat re-runs of "Friends".


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