Tales from the Northern Sea Circuit

For those of you who didn't know, I went traveling to Hokkaido this past weekend (August 22nd to 25th).
One reason why I went was because I had never been north of Nagano in Japan. But the main reason I went was to visit Isis who is living in Shiranuka, Hokkaido working for the JET program.

Overall, Hokkaido was pretty awesome. The weather there was a lot colder when compared with Tokyo and considerably cooler than Toronto, at least during the summer months. It was nice to escape the summer heat and humidity of Tokyo to the fresh, cool, and crisp air of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido in Japanese is 北海道(ほっかいどう) which means "Northern Sea Circuit", as per my blog post title. Hokkaido has a pretty interesting (and sometimes sad) story which you should read up about in wikipedia.

This blog post is a little bit of an experiment. During my trip, I was posting to Twitter giving somewhat live updates to my trip. It was pretty cool to take random pictures and upload them to facebook or post to twitter.
Now, given those tweets, I'm going to write my blog post revolving around them in a sort of chronological fashion. (By the way, If you want to follow me on twitter, add 'marreka'. For privacy reasons I have made my tweets private so you can't randomly spy on my life, but feel free to add me to track what I'm up to!)

Without further ado, my trip to Hokkaido as I twittered them!

Leaving work now for Hokkaido! 12:31 AM August 22, 2008
To catch my flight, which we took at about 3:00 PM for reasonable fares, I had to leave work a bit early.

At haneda airport 01:45 PM August 22, 2008
Arrived at Haneda airport (Terminal 2) via the Tokyo Monorail. This past weekend was the first time I had ever rode the monorail. Nothing special, really.

Went through the security gate with my cellphone. So cool. Next, boarding in 30 mind! 02:28 PM August 22, 2008
This was pretty cool. What I did was book my flight and select my seating online. From there, all I needed was either a mobile phone with Osaifu-Keitai and ANA Mileage Club application installed, an Edy-enabled ANA Mileage Club point card (or credit card), a printout of a QR (2-dimensional) barcode, or a boarding pass. Using one of the above, you can skip past the check in counter (unless you have luggage, of course) and go straight to security. All I had to do was swipe my mobile phone over the reader and I was ready to go through security. Getting right to the gate took 5 minutes from monorail to gate.

I meant mins. Stupid iPhone 02:28 PM August 22, 2008
Haha... silly iPhone messed up my earlier twitter.

One thing I didn't twitter between my typo and boarding was that I bought an awesome Starbucks mug. It's a "Japan Airport Special Edition" with a bunch of Japan's landmarks printed on it. It's super cool :D

Boarding now! See you on the flipside 02:54 PM August 22, 2008
To board my flight, all I had to do was put my mobile phone on the reader and out came a printout of where I was sitting and what flight I was on. Because of this, getting everyone onboard took literally less than 15 minutes.

The flight over to Hokkaido was fairly uneventful. It was cool to see Tokyo from the air! But unfortunately it was a cloudy day over Japan, so once we got above the cloud line we couldn't see Tokyo anymore. One thing that I found particularly awesome, though, was that Mt. Fuji was poking its head through the clouds. It was really cool to see Mt. Fuji from the plane!

In kushiro, Hokkaido. 04:56 PM August 22, 2008
For this trip, we decided to rent a car and drive around from Kushiro through Abashiri down to Sapporo. It was really awesome to be able to see so much nature and go through mountain passes, but it was quite the long drive.

I swear I'm in Canada except all the Asians speak Japanese instead of Chinese. 05:09 PM August 22, 2008
Haha... This is actually a reference to something I said two years ago when I went back to Canada. Then, I had said "It's like I'm in Japan, except all the Asians speak Chinese".

From the rent-a-car place, which is where I wrote this, we drove down from Tancho-Kushiro Airport to Shiranuka to meet up with Isis.

Here's a funny story: Shiranuka is so small, that Kiyo and I drove right through it without realizing we had passed the city. Once we were through, I looked at the GPS and realized we were past the city. Kiyo was in disbelief because it had taken no time at all to get there. It took about 5 minutes of us discussing this until we came to a consensus that we totally missed the town's "core".

After we finally found Isis' place (we passed it like three times), we went out for dinner to a ramen shop in the town. While there, we had a special Shiranuka version of ramune that is Shiso leaf (Perilla leaf) flavoured, called Tantaka Ramune (鍛高ラムネ). We tried both red shiso and green shiso flavour! It was really tasty!

After we ate, we decided to drive to Kushiro from Shiranuka (about 30 minutes) to see the "city". It was kinda cool to see Kushiro, but it's just a plain Japanese country-side city. It reminded me of Matsumoto and Ueda city centers. Since we were in the countryside, everything died down around 20:00. As a result, we went back to Isis' place at like 22:00... Haha.

SOOO COLD 11:53 PM August 22, 2008
This was me complaining that night-time Shiranuka temperature was something around 10 Celsius... So cold after a summer of 30+ Celsius every day.

The next morning (Saturday, August 23rd), we started our trip across the prefecture. The first thing we did was drive to a famous red shiso farm along country highway 392 somewhere around here in Tantaka(鍛高-たんたか). It was really cool to see the huge swaths of purple-ish red leaves.
From there, we drove back down 392 to Shiranuka and Country Highway 38 (Kushiro kokudo-釧路国道-くしろこくどう) towards Kushiro to head up to Lake Akan. Along the way, we had "breakfast" at around 11:30. What also made it "breakfast" was that we had a bowl of rice with charcoal grilled (炭火焼) pork called "kono-butadon" (この豚丼 meaning "This bowl of rice with pork on top"), which is famous in Shiranuka. It was pretty awesome.

After we finished off our "this pork bowl", we drove up to Lake Akan. Unfortunately, it is one of those towns who relied heavily on tourism to survive, and as a result is pretty much dead or on the verge of dying; It was pretty depressing to drive through it. Also in Akan is a little Ainu museum street called "Ainu-kotan" (アイヌコタン), which means "Ainu village" in the Ainu language (To learn more about the history of the Ainu, read this wikipedia article or for further reading buy a book on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca). It was cool to see the traditional crafts of the Ainu, but it was yet another testament to the lack of attention the Ainu get.

After we left the Akan region, we started driving along Highway 241 mountain pass (阿寒横断道路) alongside Mt. Oakan (雄阿寒岳-おあかんだけ). As we were driving the mountain pass, we passed a lot of bikers who were traversing the mountain pass... That's pretty impressive. I would love to try that sometime.

After we got through the mountain pass, we stopped at a rest stop somewhere along highway 241 near Mashu Onsen (摩周温泉). While we were there, I got this awesome cup of coffee... It was SO good. The coffee was freshly ground and brewed right infront of me.
The store we got it at was this quaint little shop with a lot of trinkets and 80's era decor. The workers were all wearing Mennonite type clothes, which kind of reminded me of Waterloo and Grebel.

At my lake I'm Hokkaido! (lake mashu) 03:29 PM August 23, 2008
Ah... finally. After three years, I finally visit my lake in Hokkaido! I call it my lake because in Japanese, by full name (Matthew) is pronounced "Mashu" (マシュー, can be written as 摩周). Since the name of this lake is also Mashu (摩周), I claim it as my lake.

While there, I had some super awesome Hokkaido ice cream and a slice of Yubari Melon (夕張メロン). Very tasty.
I also bought this cool (but expensive) handmade towel that says (translated sort of) "Natural spring faction, Mashu Onsen" (源泉派 摩周温泉 in Japanese). It's pretty cool.

After leaving Lake Mashu, we continued along to Abashiri (網走-あばしり), passing through Hama-Koshimizu (浜小清水). There was a cute little train station and a beach right behind it. We stopped to check it out and have a little photo shoot.

From there, we got to Abashiri and decided to call it a day. There, we ate at a great restaurant that had sushi, crab, and other good stuff. The hotel we stayed at was pretty sketchy, though.

The next day (Sunday, August 24th) we drove from Abashiri along Lake Notori (能取湖). Before getting to Lake Notori, we stopped at a little parking area by the seaside that had a great view of the Sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海) approximately here, just above the 76 hexagon.
Along lakeside, there was this cool looking bike trail that connected Abashiri to a smaller town along the lake. I wish I had my bike in Hokkaido!

While driving through all these places, we were trying to find a place to eat. It was about 10:00 and we still had not had anything to eat. After an hour or so of driving, we finally found a little restaurant along the Okhotsk Country Road (オホーツク国道) past the town of Tokoro (常呂町) that had fresh seafood donburi. It was pretty good.
From there, we drove along side Lake Saroma (サロマ湖) until we got to Kami-Yubetsu (上湧別町) through to Engaru (遠軽), from which we took the not yet completed highway (so it was free!) towards Asahikawa (旭川市). The drive through the mountains was very beautiful.
We were pretty lucky that they had the highways partially built, so we could completely bypass the mountain passes. This shaved at least an hour or so off our travel time. While it wasn't as scenic, we also were able to get to our destination on time.

Finally, we arrived in Asahikawa between 14:00 or 15:00. While we wanted to stop and have Asahikawa ramen as a late lunch, we unfortunately did not have time. Instead, we drove to the outskirts of town to get a cup of starbucks... Yes, we were that desperate.

Just left asahikawa. En route to Sapporo/Chitose. 04:00 PM August 24, 2008
After we got back to the highwawy, we drove straight down to Sapporo. The drive took about an hour to Sapporo (札幌市), then another 15 minutes to Chitose (千歳市). Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to stop over in Sapporo to have a bowl of ramen.

Originally, we wanted to go to Tomakomai (苫小牧) to get seafood, but we didn't have time. Instead, Kiyo and I checked into our hotel in Chitose and went to get dinner at a nearby restaurant. Of course, the seafood was still incredibly awesome and super fresh.

After we ate, we had to say bye to Isis who took a train back to Shiranuka from Chitose (about 3 hours). It was great to see Isis again and we were all sad that we won't be seeing each other again for a long time.

In chitose, getting ready to sleep. Flight to Tokyo tomorrow. Last week in Japan :( 09:50 PM August 24, 2008
After we left the train station, we went back to our hotel. Because we were so tired from the 800KM drive, we just went to sleep. Nice and comfortable.

The next day (Monday, August 25th), we had to go back to Tokyo. The first thing we had to do was to refil the gas, which is only significant because this was the only time we did so. That's right, 800KMs on a single tank of gas. Impressive, no?

I'm at shin-chitose airport, waiting to board my flight to Tokyo Haneda airport. 09:48 AM August 25, 2008
Once again, check into my flight using my mobile phone! So fast!
This time I had a drink with me in my starbucks mug, so the security guy sniffed it. Kiyo joked that he was testing the green tea to make sure that it was up to standards ;)

Boarding now! See you on the flipside. 10:19 AM August 25, 2008
On our way back from Hokkaido, we boarded an ANA 747 double decker plane. This was my first time ever on a double decker plane and I even got to sit on the top floor! Yay!

Along the way, I watched pokemon. It was awesome. I would like to point out that Japanese Meowth sounds so much more annoying, and Pikachu sounds exactly the same.

When we arrived in Haneda airport, I saw the pokemon airplane sitting at a gate and then as it was taxing to the runway. I was in a rush so I was only able to take a quick snapshot of it.

Arrived safely at haneda. Off to work! 12:26 PM August 25, 2008

And that was that. Overall an awesome weekend of nature and food! I hope to one day go again and do the southern shore... But this time I'd like to actually visit Tomakomai (苫小牧), Sapporo (札幌), and Otaru (小樽) ;)

Pictures of my trip should be coming soon to flickr! Right now I'm in the middle of my move back home with sobetsukai (送別会, [reading]そうべつかい, [lit]seperation meeting, [proper]goodbye party) almost every night, so I don't have too much time to sort through my photos.
I'll post another entry once they're up!

P.S. Sorry for the horribly long post. Thanks for reading this if you read through it all.

Cheap textbooks = good

To my Canadian readers:

There's a textbook sale going on at Amazon.ca for (up to) 37% off new books and up to 90% off used textbooks!

I remember I bought a textbook for one of my classes off of Amazon with rush shipping and it still cost less than buying it at the Waterloo used book store. I later sold it for $20 more than I paid for it ;)
I also found out this book (Introduction to Algorithms, Second Edition for CS 340) cost $80 less (for a new one) than it does at the campus book store. Crazyness, eh?


Here is a link to the sale: Amazon.ca Textbook store

Overdose on catechin!

There is this green tea here in Japan called "Helthya" (へルシア) that supposedly assists in loosing weight. The magic behind it all is that they've filled the drink with an excessive amount of catechin.

In one 350ml bottle, there is 540mg of catechin in there. Even drinking it is hard because it's such a strong brew of green tea. I bought a 1L bottle today, and they have each 350ml well marked off with a warning saying (translated) "We recommend you only drink 350ml a day". I'll probably end up drinking half today and the rest tomorrow, though. Warnings be damned!
I wonder if it actually works, though. I've known about this drink since I came to Japan but I'd always opt for the better tasting (read: way less strong) Kirin Namacha (キリン 生茶) or Suntory's Iyemoncha (伊右衛門茶), which are my two all time favourite chilled green tea drinks.

If any of you are in JP and feeling adventurous, you should buy a bottle... or 12 off Amazon for cheaper!
Helthya Green Tea on Amazon.co.jp - 12 1L bottles (ヘルシア緑茶 1Lx12本)

Hokkaido this weekend!

Friday August 22nd, I am going to Hokkaido to spend the weekend with Isis and Kiyo!
Oh yes, and eat a lot of seafood.

So there are four things that excite me about this trip
1. First time to Hokkaido and anything North of Nagano/Tokyo (they're about the same in terms of north)
2. I get to fly in Japan for the first time
3. I get to fly in a double decker plane for the first time ever (and we're on the top deck!)
4. I get to check into my flight with my mobile phone.

What? mobile phone?
That's right. Let me describe to you how it's done:
1. Buy your tickets online. Pay for them either by credit card, convenience store, or bank transfer
2. Take your osaifu-keitai enabled mobile phone (or Edy enabled ANA milage card. I have both)
3. At the airport, arrive at least 15 minutes (that's right. 15 minutes) before your flight leaves at security and tap your phone/card on the reader
4. At your gate, tap your phone/card on the reader and board the plane (10 minutes before your flight leaves).
5. Sit back and relax

Oh right, and you can also do step 1 from the mobile browser on your phone.
Let's see you do that with your silly iPhones.


There are also other methods of checking in online (such as printing your pass or downloading a QR code to your mobile phone), but this one is so much cooler.

Flickr = awesome customer experience

A couple of years ago Flickr launched this small little widget on their landing page for logged in customers.
It said "Hello, " where the hello cycled through multiple different languages.

However, I had noticed that not once has there been the standard Japanese greeting of "konnnichiwa".

So yesterday night, I decided to post to the help forum asking what was up (among other things like poor geo-tagging support).
Within 1 hour, I had the co-founder and a staffer respond. Within 2 hours, it was added to the list! Yay for listening to your customers!

Another reason why I love Flickr :)

iPhone = traffic?

So, apparently, the iPhone has driven two visits to my site yesterday.
Apparently Google Japan yields my blog as part of its results... Cool.

Maybe I should blog more about the iPhone... such as...

iPhoneが日本で役立たない。入力が遅いし、おサイフケータイ入ってないし、ソフトが狂っているから、買わない事を強くお薦め致します。


Which is essentially me just saying the iPhone is garbage ;)
Or, at least in Japan when compared to all the other phones here.

iPhoneの留守番電話サービスをオフに設定仕方

(English follows below)

iPhoneを使っていらっしゃいの人へ、
留守番電話を切りたい?メニューのオプションがちょっと隠しているから、やさしく説明をします:
■まずは、ホームボタン(画面の下にあるボタン)を一回押して、ホーム画面に戻る。
■ホーム画面で、設定の仮想ボタンを押す
■下の方にスクロールして、電話のオプションを押す
■一番下にある「ソフトバンクモバイル提供サービス」のオプションを押す
 □留守番電話を切りたい方:「留守番電話 OFF」を押す
 □留守番電話を再開したい方:「留守番電話 ON」を押す

海外へ行く時に、手数料がかからないために、留守番電話を切るべきですよ!


How to turn off voicemail on the iPhone without memorizing obscene codes (softbank):
1. Go to the home screen by pressing the home button
2. Click on settings
3. Scroll down and click on "Phone"
4. Click the bottom most option, labeled 「ソフトバンクモバイル提供 Servi...」
- To turn off voicemail, click the second option "留守番電話 OFF"
- To turn voicemail back on, click the first option "留守番電話 ON"

Metrics!

Metrics are a lot of fun. It's always cool to watch the statistics of my blog and see where/how people landed onto my site.
Apparently, over the last month, 50.91% of traffic to my blog has been through referring sites (although I believe part of that is me. I should fix that), 21.82% organic growth through search engines, and 27.27% direct traffic.
See, isn't that cool?

And the great thing is, I can break it down further! For example, Mr. Jason Booy's blog (www.jasonbooysmells.com) has contributed to 20% of the traffic to my site!
That's second to direct clickthroughs. Impressive, Jason... Thanks for the traffic ;)
What's also awesome is that I can see what search terms people have been using to stumble upon my blog. The weirdest one so far (only 1 person it seems) is "daiso japan clothes dryer". Pretty nifty.
(You may notice that I've only posted percentages. The reason being is that the numbers behind the percentages are pretty pathetically low. Go figure, eh)

It's also a lot of fun to watch metrics at work. Every morning I check how much money things I created have been contributing to cash flow, in addition to overall company health (only a moron would ignore the state of the company they work for). It's actually pretty surprising (and awesome) at how much I've been making for the company!
I can't wait to see how my next (top secret) project will bring in the mad internet cashs... Unfortunately, I leave shortly after it launches, but I'll be there to see the huge spike!

The Tales of Beetle the Bard

Maybe you've heard of this really famous series of books written by some British author. I think it's called Harry Potter... or something like that.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 11 years, you know what I'm talking about. Even those who haven't read any of the books probably know about it. (By the way, I haven't read any of the books, for the record)

In J.K. Rowling's last book, she makes a reference to something called "The Tales of Beetle the Bard", which supposedly has clues how to defeat the evil bad guy Voldemort (or something like that. I'm sketchy on the details).
Well, it's no longer just a figment of any of her reader's imaginations. Less than a year ago, J.K. Rowling sold a handwritten and handmade copy of this book for over $4mil USD to Amazon (with proceeds going to Rowling's worldwide orphan charity).
Two weeks ago, this book was brought over to Japan to coincide with the release of the last Harry Potter book in Japanese. I was fortunate enough to get really close to the book to see it's magnificent cover and beautifully illustrated text.
Although the Harry Potter series is not significant to me, taking a look at the book itself was an incredible experience. It was a work of art.

Up until now, only a select few people have ever read the tales. Other than the 6 close friends of Rowling (to whom she gave the other six handwritten copies to), only one editor and (likely) the top brass of Amazon have read the tales. I personally saw the first page of each tale.

But Potter fans, do not fret! Starting December this year, Rowling and her charity are publishing these tales in hardcover book form for your reading pleasure.
"The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Standard Edition" goes on sale in the US December 4th from Amazon.com, with pre-orders already being accepted. (Canadian fans do not fear, you can pre-order from Amazon.com and have it shipped to your home in Canada).

For the hardcore Potter fans out there, there is something even more special. An Amazon.com exclusive, "The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Collector's Edition" is a book inspired by the original hand crafted version. Though, at a steep $100 USD (over 10x the regular edition), this is for the biggest of hardcore Potter fans.

I consider myself quite lucky in that I was able to see this book. Witnessing the result of the (nearly) lost art of handwritten, hand-drawn, and handcrafted book was something special.

For those of you who are interested in buying the standard or collectors edition of the book, I have included the links at the bottom for your convenience.