Japan

February, 2013 ∙ 7 minute read

My first trip to Japan was a whirlwind tour from the crush of Tokyo to the silence of fresh snow at Moiwa.

February 11th - 21st, 2013

Connected through Tom, I was invited by JETRO to come speak at a conference and participate in a series of discussions about mruby in Fukuoka Japan. Ruby is the programming language that most of GitHub is written in and was invented by a Japanese gentleman named Yukihiro Matsumoto (Matz). Mruby is a variation of the language for embedded systems and was not yet released when I visited. Wonderfully, I actually got to spend some good time with Matz during my stay as he was also in tow for the festivities in Fukuoka.

With GitHub’s +1 travel policy, (always have a buddy when you are traveling) I invited Andy Delcambre along with me. Andy’s traveled a couple of times in Japan and as soon as I talked to him about the trip we expanded our itinerary to include some skiing and a day in Tokyo before heading down to the conference. JETRO was originally going to cover all of my travel, but in famous Japanese style there is no flexibility for things like moving plane tickets to different dates, so we purchased our own flights (on GitHub’s dollar) and set our own itinerary.

We flew into Tokyo, lugging a huge, black, plastic ski case with both our equipment in it (Andy’s snowboard, my skis & poles, jackets, helmets, and two bottles of whisky as presents for our hosts). The case was taller than us and humorous to carry around on the Japanese metro system. We were already taller than most people on the trains, but with our 7 foot ski case we really stood out! We Airbnb’d it in Tokyo in a cheap, but tiny apartment that served its purpose and made our San Francisco homes feel cavernous. Our day in Tokyo started at 4am the next morning to navigate the maze of Tokyo’s subways out to the Tsukiji fish market where we barely made it to witness the blue fin tuna auctions. A fascinating sight that may not be something my children will ever see in the world based on the decreasing tuna population —rooms of tuna and Japanese auctioneers (always men) on boxes with bells calling out the fish for sale. There was an almost constant din of noise making it fun to try and figure out who was biding for what and who won!

From the tuna action we headed over to Sushi Dia which is a tiny sushi shop right next to the fish market that only stays open until 10am or noon or whenever the fish is gone. Sushi for breakfast is not something I’d experience before, but it was delicious after the cold morning. You had two choices (basically how many pieces you wanted) and we sat in a tiny shop inches away from the sushi chef as he hand delivered each single piece of intricately prepared sushi. I’ve never had better in my life.

From there we wandered the city, visiting temples, seeking out the most perfectly prepared latte I’ve ever had and eating pizza (of all things) for lunch. Andy discovered this pizza shop in Roppongi on a previous trip. In a wonderful expression of Japanese values, this gentleman had picked a skill and mastered it to the fullest extent —complete with wood fired oven from Italy, homemade dough, and pizza prepared right in front of you in his small restaurant (I think there was room for 5 people). You got to choose either marina or margarita with ice tea to drink.

From there we caught up with a hacker friend, Jed Shmidt, who is an expatriate, living in Tokyo and working as a coder. Jed speaks Japanese so well he is confused for a local (he says it is all about putting on the persona) and he was gracious enough to show us around the city for the rest of the evening. We ended up in a stand up only sushi shop for dinner where the specialty was raw kobe beef wrapped around sushi (not my favorite) and then wandered off to a hidden whisky bar in the middle of Tokyo University where we sampled rare malts and laughed with the Japanese bar tenders about a couple of rare rums that literally tasted like pickle juice. From there it was over to the Park Hyatt to spend a fortune for the view, a couple of drinks, and a live jazz trio —feeling very much on top of the world. We ended in the night in Golden Gia which is a small area of Tokyo that is just about all that remains of what Tokyo was like before the bombing. It is all bars in small, 3 story, concrete buildings where the average bar seats 3-5 people maximum. Each bar is different and the second (and 3rd) story bars require climbing ladder like stairs and squeezing through doors that force a shifting of all customers to get the next customer in. We picked a favorite of Jed’s and thoroughly enjoyed the company in the bar and the intimate setting of the cramped quarters.

The next day we were off on a plane to Sapporo on Hokkaido, where we jumped on a bus and headed out to Niseko for some skiing. Niseko is a relatively new ski area and has become increasingly popular with the Aussies, but as Americans we were a novelty. We stayed at a hotel on the very edge of Niseko that had its own Onsen (Japanese style hot springs). We took one day to ski Niseko United and then a storm came in and we stayed closer to our hotel at a tiny little resort called Moiwa. With just two lifts (a double and a quad), it was sleepy and free of people, but the terrain was incredible and the snow unlike anything I’ve skied for many seasons. Niseko has so much snow that the banks are piled up on the main streets somewhere between 6 and 14 feet high. The snow at Moiwa was literally bottomless and after the storm we floated the deep to exhaustion before bushwhacking it back to the hotel. You could, with some serious effort, ski back to our hotel and we did so twice at the end of our days. Onsen set sore muscles right —soaking naked outside in scalding water, watching the snow continue to fall. The other interesting thing about skiing Niseko is that the trees are all deciduous - so instead of evergreens you have birch and aspens. A very different feeling than where I grew up in the Rockies for sure.

The culinary highlight of Niskeo was a tiny restaurant that we went to one night because we saw an ad in the hotel magazine and it was just up the road (walking distance) from our residence. There was one seating for a 7 course meal that was immaculately prepared and presented, ending with fresh soba made in front of us by a grizzled old Japanese man who took a huge round ball of dough, rolled it out into a perfect square, folded it up, and cut it with a huge blade in perfect, exacting strokes. Soba is often served cold, but ours was served hot in a delicious broth. We savored every mouthful of the buckwheat noodles.

We finally left Niskeo, spent a night in Sapporo eating soup curry and wandering the vast underground malls and walkways in the cold, cold city, before flying down to Fukuoka for the main event. The conference and associated discussions were hilarious. There was a large cultural difference, and very little setting of expectations. We were paraded around as the Silicon Valley experts to various events. Sometimes I was required to speak, other times we gave audience to company after company looking for business advice about their product in the US markets. We ate well though, and our hosts were kind, gracious, and similarly quite unaware of what was expected to happen next. We got to tour Fukuoka and meet the mayor of the Prefecture. We went to a university tech night, at a bar, with Matz. It was a little surreal to be riding around with the creator of Ruby who was equally just going where he was told to go next, but very interesting to talk to him and hear about how this thing he created has changed the world.

The trip home was uneventful, Andy and I parting ways in Fukuoka and slogging home for the endless 30 hour day.

Tim's Avatar Hi, I'm Timothy Clem.
I'm a product engineer, programmer, and hacker at GitHub in San Francisco.