Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The end of 2008

Wow, I'm getting behind on this blog! The usual vacation stuff: intermittent Internet access mixed with a general lack of time. What times I have been able to connect I've been trying to catch up on some joint work I've been doing that seems to be progressing nicely. Anyway, I'll probably do what I did with Australia--do a delayed time blogging of what's been happening. Which is quite a bit!

Of course, that will have to wait until after next week, when I'm going to the joint AMS and MAA meetings. And after that the Spring semester starts, time to get back into the lecturing mode.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas vacation

Merry Christmas vacation!

Is there any happier time of year to travel than the Friday before Christmas when much of the country is under a snowstorm? Of course not! I think the extra three hours of waiting for my flight brought myself and my fellow passengers closer together as people, and bonded us in only the way extreme boredom can.

Unfortunately, my Mom and Don have been delayed as well. What once was a hope of a 10:30 pm arrival has morphed into a 12:55 am projected arrival by Southwest. So I was left to brazen the neon lights of Downtown Disney by myself this Friday. Fortunately, at the Lego store, I survived this brief encounter with Lego Santa Claus.

Dinner was at T-Rex, a fun family restaurant in the vein of Rainforest Cafe, but with dinosaurs. Each room was decorated differently, from the fiery caves near the kitchen to an Ice Age room and the tropical room I dined in. Every twenty minutes or so the asteroid hit, and a good time was had by all.

By the way, I immensely enjoyed my flight on Southwest once it got underway. Their flight attendants actually look happy to be flying, which goes a long way even on a short trip. Add to that their comfy seats and enlightened boarding procedure, and they remain one of my favorite carriers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


That was it! I took the Airport Limited Express down to Osaka the next day. That takes about 75 minutes, and ends with a great curving ride around the bay area. Kansai airport is light and airy, and was a great place to fly out of.

Thirteen hours later, and I entered the US through the port of Detroit. They have a pretty new airport too, and it's not a bad place to fly through. But there's no place like home, and now I'm back in Durham. Until the next trip....


In the northwest of Kyoto is a stand of Bamboo Forest, and so I jumped on the train out of town and headed for the hills. This being Saturday, there were a number of families doing the same.

First stop was the Tenryu-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with good reason. This is a wonderful spot, with (still another) amazing garden, but also a nice view of the city from the West side.

I next moved on to my Bamboo Forest, which didn't disappoint.

The path through the forest leads to the Okochi Sanso villa, built by a silent film star of samurai movies. It was really a microcosm of Japan: it has its own shrine and teahouse, as well as having even better views of Kyoto.

In the afternoon I took a tour of Nara, the Imperial capital for a few decades before Kyoto. This is notable for the Great Buddha, a bronze cast statue and amazing 15 metres high (the temple was built around it rather than the other way around.) And this goes back to 752, although it was damaged and rebuilt after fires a few times.

The tour of Nara included the deer park, where since the deer are taken to be messengers of the gods, they cannot be hunted. Nowadays the deer do the hunting, for the little deer cookies that the vendors sell. Then there was another great temple that was closing just as our tour group came through.

Next I headed for Gion, the old pleasure district where some geisha (called geiko in Kyoto) still entertain. It was very atmospheric, especially the streets off the main boulevard, which seem mainly devoted to selling midlevel souvenirs to tourists.

I found a restaurant that serves okonomiyaki and teppen, and tried samples of both types of dishes. Okonomiyaki is most similar to a rice pancake, but much larger, denser, and in the case of my meal, with melted cheese on top. Kind of halfway between a pancake and omelet, actually.

A teppen is just an iron plate, and so the food prepared this way is cooked on a simple iron plate. I went for the beef intestine. Very tasty!

Some guys homes really are their castles

The next day I joined another Sunrise tour--this one a 1-day tour of Kyoto. The itinerary was a history buffs dream--first Nijo Castle which the Shogun had built to occasionally keep an eye on the Emperor.

This was followed by a trip to the Golden Pavilion, and yes, that is pretty much a gold covered pavilion surrounded by lovely gardens and a lake that was essentially a mirror the day we were there.

Next off to the Imperial Palace, still the official residence of the Emperor while in Kyoto.
All this in the morning! Then we had two hours at the Kyoto Handicraft Center (essentially an outlet mall for all the souvenirs from the cheap knick-knacks up to the month's salary jewelry.) This was also were we had lunch--a forgettable buffet. I suppose if I hadn't spent two weeks in Japan the idea of all I could drink Coke might have appealed to me, but I had, so it didn't.

The afternoon began with the Heian shrine, followed by a visit to a temple that contained 1000 statues of Kannon. Finally, we hit the biggest draw in town--Kiyamizu-dera, the Buddhist temple built it seemed on the side of a cliff. It was a great day!

Third times a charm

Okay, the first two times I tried sushi were also good, but this last place was out of this world.

The conference went two days--after the second day one of the attendees, Tamara Kolda, told me that she still hadn't had a chance to try sushi. She'd looked up a place well away from our hotel in the Lonely Planet Kyoto guide, and the adventure began!

I'm happy to say I only got us lost once or twice, although finding the place once we were on the right street was still nontrivial. But oh so worth it. Other places has a clear counter with the fish laid out for the customers to see. This place has an aquarium where they'd take out something as needed. There was virtually no English spoken, but that's the beauty of sushi--point to the blowfish on the menu, and next thing you know, you're trying a delicacy.

If I remember right, Den Shichi was the name of the place, and it was excellent!

CASTA 2008

The conference began the next day, and it was quite a good one. And I'm not just saying that because my talk went very well. Although that never hurts.

No, I'm saying that because these small, focused conferences are a great way to discover what the local research scene is doing while getting to listen to the big guns. And it is small enough that you at least recognize everyone by the end, even if you haven't been formally introduced.

Moreover, two of my good friends were there. Rudy Yoshida was a postdoc at Duke, and I was assigned as her mentor. Since she already had a research program going, that meant more showing her the ropes than doing research together. Now she's at Kentucky. I had seen her a few months back at SAMSI, but it's always good to see people again!

Also, Yuguo Chen was there. He was a grad student at Stanford while I was a postdoc there, and also was at Duke for the first few years as well. We've actually written papers together, so it was great seeing him again. He's at Urbana-Champaign now.

The first night of the conference we had the banquet, and it was at a great restaurant with an exquisite grotto. The food was an umpteen course meal, covering all the breadth of Japanese cuisine. Sushi, sashimi, tofu (which we made right at the table!) and more different foods than I can name were served. The sake was pretty good, too!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Temple central

Kyoto! Imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years, much of which time people were required to register as Buddhists with a local parish. The result: 1600 Buddhist temples, and 300 Shinto shrines. Add to that that Kyoto was one of the few large cities not burned to the ground during WWII, and you have a fascinating city with a reminder of history around every corner.

Before my second conference started, I just had an hour of daylight to see one temple. I chose Nanzen-Ji based on its proximity to a subway station, so I thought it would be easy to find. Even thought it rained continuously, the grounds still had trees turning their autumn colors (although unlike Tokyo, most of the ginko trees had shed their leaves by the time I arrived.)

Of course being Kyoto, there was another temple between Nanzen-Ji and the subway stop: Konchi-In shrine contains a temple as well as a shrine dedicated to the deification of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu built in 1628.

The picture above is "The Crane and Turtle Garden", an expanse of raked white gravel fronting artfully placed stones.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Zoom, zoom

My last day in Yokohama I decided to see a zoo with more area to work with--which tends to mean more natural enclosures. The Yokohama Zoo Zooasia is a wonderful zoo that has a far better design than most zoos.

Most zoos fall prey to a classic landscape architecture problem: Paths that branch into two are pleasing to the eye and fun to wander. However, this leads to a problem: if an odd number of paths meet at a point, then it is impossible to cover all of the paths without retracing some of your path.

The Yokohama Zoo has found a great solution to this conundrum (similar to those paths found by optimization methods in Operations Research.) First, build a single path around the zoo intended to be followed that in one goaround allows all the animals to be seen. Second, build in shortcuts across the main path where there are no animals to be seen, but allows visitors to bypass sections of the main route should they desire. The result: a park that for once makes sense and is a joy to walk along.

And the animals are cute too. Earlier I extolled the virtues of the red panda, but the Japanese Macaques have the baby factor going for them.

Next stop was the bullet train--the shinkansen. This was a joy to ride: five minutes after buying my ticket, I was shooting my way towards Kyoto at near 300 km/hr speeds. Still the ride was smoother than an airplane, and you have more legroom to boot. Definitely a nice way to travel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wheelin' and dealin'

Monday was the last day of the conference, and so I decided it was time to see Kyoto from above by visiting the Landmark Tower observatory. The Landmark is the tallest skyscraper in Japan and the 69th floor is devoted to a 360 degree view of the city. Also, I had a coupon for 300 Yen off! (Don't get too excited, 1 Yen is about 1 1/2 of a penny.)

Anyway, from here you got great views of Minato Mirai 21 district, which is where the conference was held. The building shaped like a giant sail is the hotel next to the conference center, and the blue lights are a plaza of trees also next to the conference center.

The Ferris wheel was my next stop--I barely made it in time since I never suspected that it closed at 8:00. It was big, taking a full 15 minutes to go around once.

Finally, I finished my stay in Yokohama with some sushi. Once again I was seated right next to the chef, and got to see him in action with only a glass divider between us. This time I also was a bit more traditional and had a bottle of sake to go along with it. Very good!

Cuddly wins the day

On Sunday I skipped lunch and headed up to the Nogeyama Zoo in Yokohama. Like the Ueno Park zoo in Tokyo, this is a small zoo easily seeable in an hour and a half or so. Also like Ueno, this is an older zoo, so not too many natural enclosures.

One exception to that was the Red Panda exhibit. Placed near the front of the zoo, the two little guys I saw had ramped up their cuteness factor to nearly unbearable levels. The picture below fails to capture the excited cries of small children as this lovable creature trotted around his little forest.

Another reason to skip lunch: tonight (Sunday) was the day of the conference banquet. Set on board a cruise ship, we had nine courses of Japanese dishes. I don't think the vegetarian I dined with enjoyed it as much as the rest of my table, but for my part it was a great meal.

Weekend in Yokohama

The 4th World Conference of the IASC has begun! On Saturday, they had what they called a "Welcome Party". The Asahi beer and sushi were plentiful, and in between speeches from the organizing committee they had some excellent jugglers perform.

But an even bigger surprise awaited on the way to the conference. The Queen's Square mall in Yokohama just upped the ante on "best Christmas tree in Japan" in a big way. They spared no expense in decking this giant pine to the max. Not only that, but several times a night they would play a light show set to classic Christmas songs and other feel-good music. This was a spectacle--they darkened half the mall to make the show stand out better. Afterward, there was a flurry of picture taking with the tree. Yours truly cannot resist such a moment, of course!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ueno Park

On Friday, the first conference that I am attending here in Japan, the International Association for Statistical Computing 4th World Conference, is starting up. But before heading to Yokohama, I had one last morning of sightseeing in Tokyo.

I headed over to Ueno Park. This was the first place I saw families in abundance, it seemed to be a popular place to spend a day with small children. In particular, the Zoo was a great attraction to the under 3 crowd. And myself of course. Go figure.

Anyway, this is a small zoo, but stocked as it was with animals both domestic and international, I found many species native to Japan and Asia that I'd never seen before, such as this Red-crowned Crane.

Afterward, I visited a tiny museum devoted to clocks of the 17th-19th centuries. The museum wasn't great, but the neighborhood it was in was fascinating. Shrines and temples dotted the area, and there were also several cemeteries.

The view from the top

On Thursday, I had a few hours in the morning to do some more sightseeing, so I caught the subway down to Japan's answer to the Eiffel Tower: the Tokyo Tower. Nearly identical in shape and height, what sets it apart is the orange and white paint job required by civil aeronautics codes.

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, there is virtually no line to get in, at least when I arrived at 9:00 AM. The central elevator speeds to the top, and the view is predictably great. However, Tokyo's skyline is not like Paris--skyscrapers vie for attention all around the horizon. In fact, they threaten the Tokyo Tower's primary use as a broadcasting antenna. A taller version is planned.

In the meantime, I took the lightening tour of the attractions in the current tower: the wax museum, the Guinness World Records, and the Tricky Art Gallery, full of optical illusions.

You could find a new escape route from the gallery like this women, except the door is just painted on. What's more, so is the woman. Consider your mind blown.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Panoramic Tokyo

Wednesday I took a tour entitled Panoramic Tokyo. It started at the Meiji Shrine, with enormous lantern entryways and an enormous area for prayer.

Then we moved on to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. The Palace itself is off limits except for two days of the year, but the gardens are always open, and are full of gorgeous landscaping maintained by volunteers.

Our third stop was Asakusa. This is a collection of shrines and temples between which is a lively shopping street called Nakamise. I do believe every souvenir made in Japan was available for purchase somewhere on that street.

The next stop was lunch, at a French restaurant on the 12th floor of a hotel. Despite the height, most of the buildings we could see around us were even higher. This was followed by a 50 minute cruise, and then a brief stop at Odaiba Marine Park, where Japan's copy of the Statue of Liberty resides. The route to Odaiba crosses the Rainbow Bridge, which is white in the daytime, but at night is brought to life by floodlights of all colors. The picture below was taken at sunset, when the many particulates in the air reflected the pink rays of the setting sun beautifully.

In the background you can see the Tokyo Tower all lit up. Maybe tomorrow! Tonight I completed my hunt for my new camera, a Canon SX1IS. The night before I had tracked it to its lair in a BIC Camera store, and later that night had scoured the Internet for an answer to the eternal question: was it possible to change the menus from Japanese language to English. It was! Hurrah! So the next day, armed with my phrasebook Japanese, I went to buy it. The first clerk quickly realizing my situation, took me over to the clerk who sounded like she had spent at least half her years at Oxford University. So now I am the proud owner of a new camera. I can't wait to get it home and try it out!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

In search of Mt. Fuji

Today I took the Sunrise Tours "Mt. Fuji and Hakone 1-day by Motorcoach" excursion. It started off great, the pickup from my hotel went well.

Unfortunately, the weather refused to cooperate, and clouds dogged Mt. Fuji for most of the day. We went to the visitor center--nothing. We went to the 1st station at the bottom of the mountain--nothing. We took the gondola ride (each of which held over 100 people) to the top of a neighboring mountain for the spectacular views--nothing. Finally, 40 minutes after we had come down the mountain, the clouds parted and there it was, Mt. Fuji in all its glory. Everyone on the bus was stunned with joy, and excited pictures were taken all around.

I closed the day with a shopping trip around the neighborhood of Ginza station. This neighborhood is very recent, and much like the Times Square area of New York City. I know I barely scratched the surface.


My flight to Japan from Durham was a run-of-the-mill two and a half hour hop up to Minneapolis followed by a thirteen hour endurance session. By the end of it, my sinuses felt like they had been breathing in thumbtacks for most of the flight, but I was in Japan!

And Japan is very cool. It's a wonderful mixture of cultures. They drive on the left like England, but the outlet plugs are American (although the voltage is slightly lower--a mere 100V to our 110V.) Restaurants run the gamut, and I've seen Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, as well as the old standbys McDonalds, Starbucks, and KFC.

However, this is an Asian country that is 99% ethnically Japanese, which means I stand out like a sore thumb where ever I go. In one section of town I shopped for about an hour and never ran across anyone who wasn't a local. That can be good-no one expects me to know the customs, but it also makes interaction problematic, since very few Japanese know conversational English. Of course, shopkeepers are generally easy to work with in these days where all they have to do is point to the number the cash register is showing to get me to pay the right amount.

Also, I found that in the area of Tokyo where my hotel is (Akasaka) there are enough foreigners staying at the hotels that there are English menus advertised. I found a great sushi place without even trying that hard. I seemed to have received a chef in training--every so often he would ask another chef something, receive some sad words, and make quick changes to the sushi sampler I had ordered. In the end, though, the food was great, and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.