Thursday, February 04, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 8: Siggraph Day 2, and up to snowy Nozawa Onsen for my first outdoor Onsen experience!

December 18, 2009
Japan Trip Day 8: Siggraph Day 2, and up to snowy Nozawa Onsen for my first outdoor Onsen experience!

Maaan what a great sleep last night. It was really quite awesome to sleep in a nice comfortable bed in a quiet room for a change! Very relaxing and awesome, and I woke up early (after the night of partying) and was ready to rock. Headed downstairs to get my included Japanese-style breakfast... which was not nearly as unusual as I'd heard Japanese breakfasts can be :) There was fish, potato salad, rice, soy sauce, a weird egg wrap thing... so pretty similar to a Western breakfast (eggs, potatoes, etc), but with a few extra "I can't believe I'm eating this at 9am for breakfast and enjoying it" additions like salty fish, rice and miso soup. :)

Then I headed back to Siggraph, and checked out some of the technical posters. Interesting stuff on production pipeline, and also on a dual channel TV watching screen which flipped (
alternatively) two movie images at 120Hz on and off, (alternately 60Hz then 60 Hz), and glasses synced up to either of the flickering screens. The result is you are able to have 2 people watching the same TV screen and seeing 2 different shows. Crazy!

After that I headed back to the floor, and wandered through the fine art exhibits. The coolest was a 3D image projected onto strings of yarn, which was actually done by my buddy Will's school friends. There was also a really cool blurry widescreen cityscape video art piece that I loved.

Then to the exhibition again, got some more random free stuff and a little keychain mirror to hang on my backpack, met 2 student volunteer girls from New Zealand who were super cool and yapped with them for ages. Then met up with Tatsuya and Dave and Regina for lunch, and we went to a tasty Teriyaki Chicken rice bowl place for lunch. Shopping after that, and I bought another sweeeet flannel shirt at Uni Qlo. I tried hard to find postcards to send home to people but no luck yet. After that went to Hard Rock Cafe which was funny, and their old "Yokohama City" shirt design was amazing... and out of stock :( The new one wasn't as cool so we kept wandering. After that said goodbye to everyone, and headed back to my hotel to get all my stuff. And... back to Tokyo!!!!!!!!

I headed back onto the Subway, then the train station, and back to Tokyo. At Tokyo Stn. I watched Japanese organization in it's finest form: the Shinkansen arrives and all the red-jacket cleaning employees line up. Doors open, people exist. Wait. Everyone is off the train. And... GO! The red-jacketed cleaning employees literally burst into action, rush (very orderly) onto the train, meticulously clear garbage, and wipe every single tray and ledge with cleaning solution and a cloth. Meanwhile, the train customers (me included), are also lined up in perfectly straight lines, at each car number, in a row, standing between the two painted white lines. SO organized. Once the cleaning people are done (literally took a grand total of 3 minutes to clean the entire train), we all walk on, everyone bows to everyone else, and we all sit down for a pleasant train journey. :)

I got a nice east-meets-west thing for pre-dinner, a pack of sashimi from the train station, and a coke in a weird bottle. From there I headed up to Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. At this point I could already see a lot of snow on the ground and snow falling which was a huge, exciting surprise... and very different than the t-shirt and jeans weather of Yokohama. Once I got to Nagano, I tried to get a direct bus to Nozawa Onsen but the last one for the day had already left. So I had 60 minutes to wait until the next local train, so I filled that time with going to a Japanese burger and fries fast food place. The girls serving there grinned at the sheer amount of baggage I was already carrying, and my burger took a while so they brought me a free bag of chicken nuggets and said "Sumimasen!" haha, so awesome. I could tell it was gonna be cold where I was going, so I switched out of my thin sweatshirt and bright sneakers and into my powerhouse outdoor-friendly Gore-Tex waterproof hiking shoes (that turned out to be a really good idea), a scarf, gloves, my Canada toque, and a warmer Toronto sweatshirt and my Gore-Tex shell on the outside of that!! So what I'm saying is, San Francisco has made me a total wuss and I can no longer handle the winter without excessive outdoor clothing, yes.

I then headed to the local train bound for Togarinozawaonsen (or, in readable format, Togari Nozawa Onsen). It was a 60 min local train, and so fun to watch the locals on the train, and their excited exclamations when they saw my Canadian flag on my backpack. As I arrived in Nozawa Onsen, there was a girl also walking towards the cab I was going to take. It was snowing hard and, being a well-brought-up young man, I said, "Dozo" (as in, "Please, you first"). :) She had near-perfect English and said, "Where are you going?" "Nozawa Onsen", I replied. "Me too! Let's share, expensive!" she said, noting that the cab ride into town would be a lot of money. So we jumped into the cab and chatted some more, and it turned out the cab was actually very expensive,
¥2600 ($30) for a 10 or 15 min ride! As we were getting closer, she said "Do you have time for a coffee?" As it turns out, she stays with the people who own the Burton Snowboard Shop (or maybe she works there too, I couldn't tell for sure), and she wanted to invite me in for a drink with her friends!! I got there with all my ton of stuff, and it was snowing like crazy outside. The owner and another friend were hanging out, watching snowboarding videos. She said, "Birru?!" and I said, "Arrigato Goziamasu!!" So instead of a coffee, they poured me an Asahi Beer and brought out a bowl of potato chips. :) This was literally the most hospitable and kind welcome I think I've ever seen. They described to me how to get to the hostel (since I'd gotten out a little before my hostel to go to their shop), but since I had so much luggage and it was snowing like crazy, their friend put on a jacket, and took my stuff, put it in his van, and friggin' drove me right to the front door of my hostel!!! I tried to get into the wrong side of the truck (since driving is on the other side in Japan) and the dude laughed at me. :) This was literally the nicest welcoming party I've ever seen, and they all said goodbye and "Welcome to Japan!" as I left. I knew this was a good sign, and Nozawa Onsen was gonna be one of the best places I'd visit on my entire Japan trip.

The awesomeness continued when I got to my hostel, Lodge Nagano. I got in and the door was unlocked, and there was a whiteboard with a note on it for me - "Welcome Mike! Come on in, we're in the back watching a movie." And... amazing personal touch. I could tell I was gonna love this place. :) I went in and got settled, and then hung out with everyone. They turned out to be the staff from the hostel, and we watched the new Star Trek. Everyone (especially Will from Scotland) was so psyched about the movie, that I had to break the ice with a "I work at the place that made the special effects!" ;) Haha. Everyone was super psyched and asked lots of questions and told me how cool my job is. (hehe, definitely true!) :) There is a good mix of Aussies, Scots, and Canadians here... fantastic. This hostel is super organized, extremely comfortable, and so welcoming. I love it already. I met Luke and Renee (brother and sister) from Australia, Will from Scotland, and Corbin from Vancouver... awesome bunch of people.

At 11:15pm-ish, we finished the movie and I decided to go out and explore a bit. Nozawa Onsen is particularly famous for 2 things: skiing, and the 13 free village onsens (hot spring public spa baths) set up all around town. The onsens close at 12 (or you're just supposed to stop using them then so you don't disturb the townspeople), so I wanted to go check them out. Will set me up with a plastic basket, a pump soap bottle, a towel, and a "privacy towel" for your... um... crotch! I took off to go wander and onsen, and took lots of photos outside of the onsens. There is one very close to Lodge Nagano, but Will and Luke suggested I check out the very impressive onsen down the main street. This was a wooden onsen in a really amazing old architecture style, and it was also covered in freshly-fallen snow... which made for some amazingly picturesque shots.

First off, the onsen water was HOT. I asked around at the hostel later on and it was apparently between 55 and 65 CELCIUS. That's 2/3rd's of the way to boiling!! So you are literally cooking yourself in the bath! It is water from a hot spring, but the first thing I noticed is it didn't smell horribly like sulfur/Rotorua in New Zealand, which surprised me. The other thing that surprised me? The water was friggin' 65 degrees!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The onsens are not staffed, you just wander in at any time. I learned later that a lot of the people there in the town don't even have showers in their homes, they just use the onsen as their actual bath. I went into the left door of the onsen (labeled, "For Mens"). There was an older Japanese man in the onsen already, and I tried to discretely glance over to see what the heck the procedure was for getting into the onsen, as I knew there were a TON of rules you were meant to follow. There were some handy signs posted in approximate English, which was super helpful. It went like this: shoes/snowy boots off first, then step onto the wooden plank, then put your shoes into a cubby on the shelf. Then, take all the rest of your clothes off, and put them onto the shelf. (If someone hated you a lot, they could come in at this point and steal all of your clothes, and you'd be a goner.) Then you take yourself, your privacy towel and basket, and put it all down on the sides of the wooden tub. There was then a scoop/bucket which you scoop some hot water in from the tub (in the same room), and you can top it up with water from the cold water tap if you like. Then you use the pump soap and soap down, and clean off by dumping buckets of scalding water onto yourself. And then, finally, you jump in! Oh yeah, and also you need to make sure not to get "bacteria into the tub", which apparently your body doesn't have (now that it's clean!), but your towel has a lot of. So you need to be careful not to put your towel into the bath water... instead you fold it twice and put it squarely on your head. :) It's SO hilarious. Some of this procedure was similar to the spa resort onsen in Hakone a few days before, but it felt much more like the real deal when the outdoor village onsen is actually a replacement for the townspeople's baths!

I really enjoyed the experience and the old man left after a little bit so I could bust out my camera and take a few videos of the onsen inside when no one else was in there. I liked it but man it was hot, so I wussed out a bit and stayed near the cold water tap! I had to get out a few times to cool off and then get back in. It sure was nice on such a cold, snowy night. There was a second tub which I thought might be a bit cooler... and it was even hotter!!!

I finished up in there, my skin totally red/pink from half-cooking myself in the onsen, I felt like a poached egg. I took off to head back to the hostel. On the way I walked past the "Stay Bar" which the guys at the hostel had mentioned, so I went down for a drink. In there, there was a complete Australian replica of my buddy Tim Nash, which was hilarious. The other bartender was new to Nozawa Onsen and had only been in Japan a few weeks, but was super cool too and also from Australia. The other customer was a Japanese musician guy, and it sounded like he played music at the bar on busier nights. I had a shochu, and a hot sake (which was a good idea for the cold night!) This evening was so frickin' awesome and relaxing. Then back to the hostel!

This hostel rocks, it is so comfortable and the heater in my room is ammaaaziiiiing. All the clothes I'd hung up in my room were already dry, and my room was nice and toasty and warm. Another note about why Japan rocks: heated toilet seats are the norm. Man, that really pays off. This is one in a series of areas where Japan most certainly has the upper hand compared to the rest of the world. :)

Checked out the technical posters in the morning, this one was about the 10Gbps 4k camera link that I saw a demo of the day before

Funny poster about Siggraph Asia 2010 in Seoul

Art exhibits

Haha, this computer screen dude is peeing monitors... CRT monitors!

More random and funny art

This was a bunch of food spinning on rotating motors

Awesome 3D string projection art from some buddies of my friend Will at work

Breakdancers demoing some full body motion capture

This was cool, a story "tube", you put the camera into the tube and you see a 3D set of characters projected onto the screen, along with the 2D video image


East, meet west

At the train stations they always have these gloriously packaged gifts to take to people. I wanted to try one so I bought a small box of these tiny cheesecakes... and ate them all... myself. Let's pretend I needed the calories from all this schlepping around.

One of the tiny cheesecakes

Pretty views from the train

At the station in Nagano, watching the snow come down and about to get on the local train up to Nozawa Onsen

The nicest welcome I've had yet in Japan, this might be the most hospitable moment of the trip!

My super cozy room, actually had it all to myself. The heater was my friend over these few cold days!

Out on an adventure

One of the 11 free Onsen (hot spring water spa/public baths) in town

LOTS of snow!

Super amazing onsen in the village, this is one of the most prominent ones


Then I snuck some photos inside since there wasn't anyone in there :) These are the baths, extremely hot spring water from the mountain bubbling there, and then a cold water tap for the wussies in the bunch (i.e., me)

This is where you drop your shoes (and pants)

As with the bath in Hakone, you have to soap yourself down and dump hot water on yourself before you jump in the bath. That basket was mine (from the hostel), with a "modesty towel", and some containers of pump soap and shampoo.

So friggin' hot up in here!!!

I love this place already

Then I went to the "Stay Bar" and had a drink with this crazy dude (who I think is a musician who played in the bar some nights)

Inside the Stay Bar

Was quiet that night, but you could imagine this place gets a bit rockin'

Canadian flags galore

Had a Shochu and now heading back to the hostel

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