Japan Blog Study Tour

Byebye Kyoto, hello Toyota

IMG_2951 Today is the last day we started out in Kyoto. I will miss the Palace Side hotel with their staff that spoke decent English and their food which was decent every time (something you shouldn’t take for granted when you are in Japan, or so we found out). We started out by hoisting our luggage down using the elevators and sticking on a delivery tag so they would be delivered to the next hotel in Tokyo. After some problems with mislabeled addresses we finally got the right address and I started breakfast 15 minutes late which meant I had only 15 minutes left. After 10 minutes I walked outside to smoke and I found a big touring bus waiting there for us. For some reason if you rent a bus in Japan you get 2 stewardesses for free with the bus. Both of them spoke pretty decent English and besides translating for us they didn’t had to do much (makes you wonder what the Japanese make them do…).

IMG_2895 We left for Tokyo after everyone had showed up but first we would make a small detour to a Toyota plant. Just after we left I fell asleep and we started out in sunny weather but when I woke up a short while later we were suddenly driving in the snow and the weather was cloudy. After two quick stops where we got our lunch (I found some ichigo-bread, aka strawberry bread, at the freeway supermarket which made a nice lunch and once again an excuse not to try the local cuisine) and then arrived at the Toyota plant where we were told we couldn’t take pictures.

We started out at the assembly shop where they make all kinds of Toyota cars (3 types I think) including the Toyota Prius. Its pretty cool to see how the whole plant works. From assorting parts to putting the cars together. Toyota works with the JIT principle: Just In Time. Cars are ordered and build exactly to the specifications of the customer. This means that on each assembly line each car is different. Its fun to hear all the happy tunes and see all the (autonomous or manually driven) trolleys wiz around the plant delivering parts and components to each station at the time they are needed.

IMG_2900 Next we went to visit the body shop where the dangerous welding is automated by robots. You observe everything during the tours from suspended walkways high above the work floor but I would not like to be walking around the body shop while all the robots are doing their thing. The walkways are shielded from sparks and with colored shields from high intensity flames but still you get a warning to watch out for welding sparks that manage to jump over the shielding and not to look into the welding torches.

IMG_2915 After the plant tour we used the touring car to get to the Toyota demonstration building (we even used the bus to travel between the assembly shop and the body shop, go figure how large these facilities are). Most of the demonstrations were either old news or we had just seen it for real so we quickly skipped down to the showroom where they had some racing cars, new Toyota’s and even some Lexus cars. Which we ofcourse had to try ^-^.

I will summarize by saying that Lexus is pretty nice but with my length you have to set the seat all the way back to be able to fit in there properly. Once seated its pretty comfortable but when you compare this to a BMW I’d say the Germans have sized their cars a bit better (except for the Z-series but those a made for rich leprechauns anyway).

IMG_2924 After we had checked out the show room we assembled in a meeting room on the second floor to talk with someone from Toyota PR. Even though he didn’t specifically say he was from Public Relations we quickly fired a lot of technical questions which he wasn’t able to answer so he finally said he did PR so we would stop asking difficult questions (that’s what you get for having 25 IT students coming over).

Toyota has some interesting visions for the future but most of the visions are pretty practical: smart safety systems everywhere. Most of which we know from Discovery Channel but still pretty cool.

After the Toyota visit the bus brought us to Nagoya where we had reserved at a local restaurant but we had some spare time. As small group decided to find a Star Bucks or compatible and we finally settled for a Tully’s Coffee a few blocks from the rendes-vous spot. After we had gulped down the coffee we hurried back to the crossing where we found the rest of the group.

IMG_2958Someone from the restaurant came to pick us up and guide us to the restaurant. Once there we had to take off our shoes on the second floor for a traditional style meal. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the corner of one of the tables so I could sit sideways. The food consisted of some cold bowl of noodles, brown stuff, some funky sauce and a giant shrimp. It looked so good I decided to just eat the white rice and wash it down with beer.

IMG_2964After this delicious meal we went to the station where we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. From Tokyo central we took the subway to Jimbocho where we walked to Sakura Hotel.

Well hotel, it was supposed to be Sakura Hotel if not for the fact that the hotel was not in Jimbocho but the hostel was. Once we entered the hostel and found our rooms we found out that toilets, showers and sinks where in fact all shared for each floor. The room I slept in with Roel, Guido and Jip was barely big enough to fit 2 tower beds, a door and a small table between the beds with a TV on it that didn’t work. Great.

After some bitching (and some irritation from some idiots who had deployed the fire exist from the 4th floor within 4 minutes after arriving) we found out that the committee had not booked this ho(s)tel directly and that every room was supposed to have its own shower and toilet. They would try to get it sorted and relocate us. The only problem is that the criteria are pretty hard: large group, cheap hotel and in Jimbocho otherwise the travel guide would be useless as all times and stations would change.

We finally decided to ignore the problem for now and head for bed as it would be an early start the next morning.

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IMG_2752 This is the first day we woke up while it was snowing. According to the staff, it usually is cold this time of year but snow is pretty much unheard of. Luckily for us we are traveling quite a while today which means we probably be walking around in the sun rather than the snow.

We walked past ATR and NICT multiple times (they are in the same town as for example Omron, the first company we visited in this study tour) but today we actually get to visit them. IMG_2763And to be honest, these are the ones we have high hopes for.

When we got there we first walked towards ATR as we thought they were located in the same building. After a minute of so, one of the receptionists walked us to the right building one kilometer down the street.

IMG_2767 NICT uses a lot of research from ATR to speed up their own research. One of the cool things we saw was a prototype of the ubiquitous home. In here, the whole home is controlled by a computer (with pressure sensors, RFID readers and camera’s) which turns on the lights, makes sure you don’t forget stuff and records shows you like. Something like HAL2000 but then in 2008.

Another project uses pressure sensors in the floors of the entrance hall to track occupants and determine their intent from just the pressure patterns: is someone waiting, hasty, idling around etc. IMG_2798Even though the idea is cool there is not much to see except for the floor of pressure sensors.

After NICT we walked back to ATR (which we now knew how to find) and we were greeted by Nick Campbell, one of ATR’s big shots. He turned out to be a really nice guy and he told us to follow him into the restaurant for lunch.

Another weird thing about Japan is are the rules regarding presents and such: we had to pay our own lunch because otherwise it could be considered a bribe… We heard that in some cases it would be possible to get a free lunch but that has to be approved by numerous large organizations and it would take months.

IMG_2803 Lunch consisted of a  kind of fish – salmon I believe, soup and rice. I ditched the rice, drank the soup and was then pleasantly surprised to find out the the fish was prepared great. After lunch we moved towards the back where we found a coffee parlor. With a bit of help from a Japanese employee we managed to find the right button on the ticket machine to get a ticket for coffee and some cookies. After we got some fresh made coffee from the lady at the counter we heard we could walk around for a bit because we were early (that was a first) so we decided to walk around on the ATR site.

IMG_2812 When we passed the parking lots we turned the corner and found ourselves next to a huge grass field with some stone barbeques next to a small terrace. This was meant for employees that wanted to have a party at ATR. According to the signs next to it, the party was allowed to continue until 10 PM – some party…

Next we walked by some huge pond with a small forest around it and some benches along the  way – no doubt the place to go if you need some peace and quiet. After we passed that, we emerged from the trees to find a soccer court and a few tennis courts. ATR sure knows how to keep their employees happy.

IMG_2825 We finally walked back to the entrance to find the rest of the group. ATR does research on a wide range of topics including robotics (they have full size humanoids and robot faces with realistic skin) but we came to see ubiquitous technology so we had to skip that section. Mostly.

We got to see the voice recognition and syntheses that ATR build. The computer is a UMPC and the program works within a certain context to make sure the translation is accurate, in this case the topic was travel. The software even copies the intonation of the speaker when it translates.

IMG_2832 Next we got a presentation from Nick Campbell himself and his research on following a conversation with out listening to the words. He found out that we use a certain intonation when we speak to certain people (father, mother, sister, aunt, lover etc) and he created an algorithm that determines the intonation and deducts the softness of the voice. It was pretty cool to see how accurate the software worked.

IMG_2834 ATR also has a group that is working on learning algorithms. They programmed a robotic arm with some stereo camera to learn how to do a certain move. For example we taught the software what the command "stack" means or "move": you simply show the computer what you mean and it can then do the movement, even if the number of blocks differ, their color differ and even if their position is different.

IMG_2856 After the very successful visit to ATR we traveled all the way back to Kyoto for a great dinner in the hotel we were staying at, the Palace Side Hotel. We finally got to eat Western style prepared food. Well mostly Western anyway: the Japanese think its normal to serve the garments (the vegetables and the potato’s) cold. Even with the cold garments, the food was great.

Japan Blog Study Tour

Little Boy

IMG_2572 Today (Sunday) we went to Hiroshima on a culture day. We jumped on the Shinkansen (Nozomi number 5) to Hiroshima from Kyoto. One of the group had a GPS system for cycling which can show the current speed and other statistics and we clocked the train at a top speed of 303 km/h. At that speed we found a smoking booth between two trains. So after we bought some coffee from a nice young lady on board, we checked out the smoking booth. After some hilarious situations in a small booth with 2 cups of coffee and cigarettes (taking sudden corners at 300km/h is dangerous for people in the vicinity with open mugs) we arrived after 1,5 hours at Hiroshima.

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Temples and cold feet

IMG_2409 The next morning was really really cold. Everything besides sleeping quarters is unheated so with temperatures around the freezing point it was a rude awakening (and getting up at 5:30 in the morning is a rough wake up – period). Somehow somebody managed to throw a pillow (filled with grains or something) through one of the paper walls – oops. But we were allowed to take part in the morning ceremony of the temple none the less. The high priest of the temple led the ceremony and afterwards we all got a divine blessing from him (perhaps I should have had him bless my teeth instead of the trip and flight) and we had breakfast. I ditched the misu soup and the rice and went for the fruit salad and tea (yes, shoot me). After a while some monk came in telling us that there was coffee: within seconds the eating hall was deserted.

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Ninjas and temples

IMG_2121 Friday was another culture break as we went to Kyoto where a guide would take us on a tour through a ninja house (actually a daimyo inn). Instead of one we guide, we found 3: three female students who are volunteering took us on a tour. One one side we get a guided tour and on the other they can practice their English. The result was pretty amazing: all of them had an almost flawless accent and their English was very good.

IMG_2134 Once in the ninja house, we were told we are not allowed to make pictures with out cameras to protect the building from the flash as its over 400 years old. Any attempt to explain that me and Sebastiaan could take pictures without flash didn’t help. Also you are not allowed to touch anything inside besides the floor and the stairs (yes, really) and we had a pretty grumpy guide who was pretty strict with those rules.

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Castles and students

IMG_1757 Today (Wednesday) we had another freaking early start and a decent night sleep thanks to the quick dinner the night before (thanks to the McDonalds, which saves a heck of a lot of time to find a joint that serves food we like). We headed out to Himeji using the Skinkansen (high speed train). After a short ride which had a peak speed of 275km/h, we arrived at Himeji and we walked to the castle.

IMG_1815 The castle is build on a hill / small mountain and the top of the castle is made out of wood (instead of stone like the European ones) and is surrounded by big walls and various courtyards. The entire complex is so large that after 2.5 hours we only saw the courtyards leading up to the castle and the castle itself and nothing of the walls surrounding it (only from a distance).

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Today is Saturday for me and all hell broke loose when my tooth broke off (again). The tooth broke years ago in a fight (which I got pulled into) and it got glued back on which worked great: came of twice since then which is acceptable. However, today we were visiting a temple in Nara (not the the one we slept in but I’ll post that later on) but the biggest wooden temple in the world.

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Fifth day

IMG_2020 Today we visited Nara again. Last time the weather was crap (rain) and other things were a bit off. This time however, the weather was brilliant: sunny, 12 degrees and we even got a station guard to walk us half-way to NEC. NEC has an awesome building but we weren’t allowed to make pictures. So I didn’t. Only when nobody looked.

IMG_2052 Anyway, we had some cool tech demos about robots which interact with humans (think Aibo, think small toy-like gremlin, think way expensive), a door with lcd’s in them (I want one of those) and telecommunication walls with HD video links between different buildings. The lunch was decent, although pretty cold but that is probably because the kitchen chef never made a western meal like that. After the visit, we were greeted by a fleet of taxis out side NEC. Apparently someone noticed we were running late and they had called every cab in Nara to the NEC building. IMG_2050After the drivers had their fun with the fact that we probably are twice their length they brought us to NTT Communications Lab.

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Visiting the first companies

Today (3rd day) we have visited 2 companies. Omron and NAIST. Omron makes nanotech electrical components like miniature fiber-optics and face recognition software. Omron has a nice building and they do some cool stuff but they work pretty much on a practical side: they have a problem and they develop a solution.

Like I said before, 2 of the group became sick from last nights food and they became ill while we were on the move: Ronald decorated the floor of the bus and Erik spectacularly demonstrated the acoustics of the Omron building. As we walked outside the open balcony of the Omron building our tour guide (pretty Japanese girl) explained how they worked in an open workspace and people came outside for fresh air or to smoke a cigarette in piece and quiet. She barely had said that when Erik hurled towards the nearest fire escape and demonstrated the echoing of the balcony haven. The look on the poor girls face when she realized what was going on was priceless.

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Cultural clash

When we first got in Japan we noticed how freaking clean Japan is. Almost no cigarettes on the floor, no cans, no nothing. Also no graffiti or markings on bus chairs or anything. I heard that rebelling youth is simply locked up in their room for 6 months to make the point that its not accepted here.IMG_1357

Just like those vending machines that are everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. On each street corner, on stations in dark alleys even in a Shinto temple. The upside is that whenever you are thirsty you can get a drink when you want. It also costs nothing: 80 to 160 yen for normal to fancy drinks. That’s 55 euro cents to 1 euro for a drink you buy at a dutch kiosk (if you can find one in a 3km radius) and you can choose from more options than a normal dutch supermarket has.