Hydrangea in Kamakura

A week in Tokyo

Reading time: 32 minutes. Published on . Header image credits: me.

I’m not regularly in the habit of writing personal blog posts. I had an old blog once in which I shared my experiences during my Erasmus semester in Northern Ireland. After that, I have largely resorted to technical writing. This text is an attempt to balance that out again; mostly for my own sake, but maybe some readers find it entertaining. It is about Scala Matsuri, a conference that took place in June 2019 in Tokyo. I am writing this in the airplane back from Haneda to Frankfurt in an attempt to get me to finish while I still remember details. (Update: I kept pouring many more hours into this post, so the sentence before is kind of a lie.)

Scala Matsuri

Scala Matsuri is an annual Scala conference in Tokyo. Translated, matsuri means festival.

matsuri means festival, so naturally we have some fun food during #ScalaMatsuri Unconference / ScalaBridge Tokyo like shaved ice and pizza

I had already tried the previous year (2018) to get a talk into the conference, but unfortunately, it was rejected.1 Fast forward to 2019 and my proposal to talk about property testing got accepted.

The conference was scheduled for two and a half days: a Thursday afternoon (June 27) for an OSS hackathon, then two conference days (June 28–29) afterwards. I was a little unsure about how much time I should spend for sightseeing. In the end, I decided to come to Japan on Monday and return on Sunday, having about three days to see the city and its surroundings.

My first time in Japan

A lot of my friends have already visited Japan in the past. One of them has even moved there since both of us finished studying. Consequently, there was no shortage of useful travel tips nor suggestions what to do, see, and eat. The only difficulty was to fit all these suggestions into three days, taking into account that my first day (Monday) would likely consist of fighting against jetlag. However, as my friend Asta could attest to, I am very efficient at sightseeing.2

Monday, June 24

As foreseen, flying into Japan was stressful. I had a connecting flight in Osaka, which required me to retrieve and re-check my luggage (a fact that the staff in Munich was apparently unaware of). The connection was tight, but ultimately I managed to catch the connecting flight to Haneda.

Having arrived at a domestic terminal in Tokyo, I had to first go to the international terminal to pick up my preordered Pocket WiFi. This wouldn’t have been necessary, since there are plenty of walk-in shops that will let you rent such a nifty device. Also, a bought a Suica card for transit in Tokyo. The staff at the airport was friendly, but it took me a while to figure out that they were trying to point out to me that unfortunately I could only buy one of the three Suica card designs at the vending machines. I was fine with that, but proceeded to make an order-of-magnitude error and put 10000 ¥ (approx. 100 €) on my card. Luckily, these cards can not only be used for transit, but also in many shops and museums.

The monorail and then subway ride to my hotel (in the Tokyo Bay area) didn’t took long and I arrived there at about 11:00 in the morning. I got lunch at a place in the subway station, where I had to order through a machine, but wasn’t able to decipher the menu. The soup I got was consequently a surprise, but a pleasant one.

A not-so-pleasant surprise was that the hotel did not have a room for me ready yet. Fortunately, they had free luggage lockers, so I left my suitcase there and went for a walk in the area. I passed through the entire area when it started drizzling. However, at that point it was past check-in time already, so I quickly finished my walk to reach a Yurikamome station and went back to the hotel.

When I arrived in my room, it was about 15:00, and even though I wanted to stay awake for at least four more hours, the bed just seemed to be very enticing, so I went to sleep.

Tuesday, June 25

I woke up the next day at 01:00, with about five hours to kill before breakfast started. Perfect time to catch up on some emails and work.

The breakfast at the hotel was another classic case of cultural confusion and language barriers. The waiter wanted to bring me to my table and stop to point out the location of the trays and cutlery, which I mistakenly interpreted as an order to take a tray and cutlery. Needless to say, we were both looking at each other quizzically.

My route for the day was based on suggestions of friends on some important spots in Tokyo. But first, I went to the Skytree tower, which sports an observation platform with an altitude of 450 meters. Additionally – I learned that when I arrived – a Hello Kitty exhibition.

Up there, I couldn’t see very far because of mist, but enough to get the feel that Tokyo just vastly extends into (almost3) all directions. When taking the elevator down, a Japanese person started asking me about the purpose of my visit, to which I dutifully replied along the lines of Scala Matsuri. Impressed, he handed me his business card. Unimpressed, he accepted that I didn’t have any.

From there, I proceeded to the Sumida Park, a lovely little park by the Sumida River. Nearby is the infamous Asahi Beer building, which my friend Jan has accurately described as the “unique architectural equivalent of Fremdschämen”. I strongly agree. From Sumida, Asakusa is only a stone’s throw away, where the Sensoji Temple, an old five-story pagoda can be found. For the first time, I was confronted with the fact that Buddhists seem to be intensly into incense.

From there, I went onwards to Ueno to enjoy the nice weather in a park (to be fair, I rode the bus for that part of the tour). The park has a pond which is completely covered in green plants, which is why I didn’t even notice it at first. June is the hydrangea season in the area, which means there were plenty of colourful blossoms everywhere.

The final two stops for the day were Akihibara, which I found interesting but since I’m not into games, not a place where I would spend a lot of time, and Hamarikyu Gardens, a nice park and an important historic site. During the Edo period (17th–19th century), the park was used for duck hunting. This involved artificial hills where hunters could hide behind, and were then called to shoot after the ducks have been lured to the ponds.

I noticed that in most parts of the city I had visited that day all the electrical wiring was overground. Some of those poles were an eyesore with cables going in all directions in a seemingly unstructured fashion. I’m assuming the reason for this is probably because it makes repairs easier after earthquakes.

By the time I was walking through the gardens, my watch had already informed me for the fourth time that I had reached my step goal. Tired after many kilometers of walking, I went back to the hotel to relax a little. In the evening, I met a friend I knew from the Scala community who had moved to Tokyo and his wife. Despite Japan’s absolute hostility to a vegetarian diet, they managed to find a place that serves vegetarian and vegan ramen. It was that evening that I had my second encounter with an ordering machine. Luckily, my company was able to help me decipher the menu there.

Needless to say, I was absolutely knackered when I returned back to the hotel, at which time my watch cheerfully congratulated me for breaking my five-fold step goal.

Quick side note about the small car parked in a marginally larger parking spot: I was very confused about the general lack of car traffic in Tokyo. Sure, there’s lots of cars, but with a city that size, I had expected 24/7 traffic jams. However, that’s not the case, because the government has been doing a splendid job of encouraging people to use public transit instead. They do that by demanding car owners to prove that they have a parking spot before they’re allowed to bring a car to the city. Naturally, because of high costs of land, this is a luxury not available to lots of people. The tiny car embodies that spirit.

Public transit in Tokyo and its surroundings is supremely efficient. There’s a ton of lines with frequent trains (or buses). Google Maps will even show you precisely which car you’ll have to board to get to the appropriate exit fastest. Even though there are multiple different transit operators, you’ll just touch your Suica card and be done with it (at least for tourists; residents may tell a different story there).

Wednesday, June 26

On Wednesday, I almost woke up at a normal time (well, after 6:00). The plan was to visit an old friend in Kamakura, a beach town a little over an hour out south from Tokyo. We studied together in Munich, but a few years ago, they moved to Japan and married there.

After yesterday’s confusion, today I managed to navigate the breakfast effortlessly. It wasn’t long until I was back at a train station, heading for Kamakura. Since I started my journey around 8:30, rush hour was still going strong and my connecting JR train actually was more than ten minutes late; an transgression that I didn’t expect in Japan.

A little over an hour later, I arrived at Kamakura. The first stop on my tour was the Hase-dera temple. In order to get there, I had to change into the tram-like Enoshima railway whose only purpose appears to be moving tourists around, which – as opposed to in Tokyo – appear to be mostly Japanese. My friend had already warned me that because of the hydrangea season, the temple area will be busy, and he was right. Fortunately, the blooms were a sight to behold.

The Hase-dera grounds have lots of other things to offer, too. Naturally, there is a rock garden (and also other carefully-maintained non-rock gardens). The most interesting thing I found was the Benten-kutsu cave containing lots of miniatures. The cave had a very low ceiling, so that even short me had to bend down. However, the candles and miniatures made the cave mesmerizing. I tried finding out more information, but all I found was in Japanese. The next best thing is from a travel blog, where the authors report:

From the small amount of information I’ve been able to obtain, the Benten-Kutsu cave is thought to have been used by Kobo Daishi and that he carved the small statue of Benzaiten with 8 arms located in the adjacent Benten-do Hall himself while in seclusion there during the 9th century.

Next on the list of must-sees in Kamakrua is the Kōtoku-in temple. It is famous for a 13 m tall bronze Buddha statue. For a small entrance fee, one can go inside the statue.

While strolling around the area and visiting some other places in the vicinity, I picked some random food places for small items so that I could try a variety of dishes. Needless to say, I did not try the Kebab Bento crossover abomination that was offered on Hase’s touristy main street. In need of a break, I walked down to the beach, expecting some café to sit down and drink some tea. Unfortunately, the beach was still “under construction” and there were no places like that. A little disappointed I walked back to the nearest train station, waited for the cute train and got out at Kamakura’s main station.

I arrived back in Kamakura about 14:45. My friend and I were planning to meet for dinner at 17:00. That gave me about two more hours for more sights.

At the other end of the town is the Hōkoku-ji temple with a bamboo garden. I thought I was being smart by taking the bus there, but turns out that it was hard to get a bus to stop at the bus stop and also too much traffic. Walking may or may not have been faster.4

Regardless, I arrived at the forest, which was small but beautiful. The last opportunity to participate in the tea ceremony had already passed when I entered the garden. Instead, I took a walk through the forest comprising two thousand bamboo trees.

I left the forest shortly before it closed at 16:00. Curiously, even though Kamakura is a town popular with Japenese tourists, and it was high season for tourism because of the hydrangae, many shops, places and sights closed very early. Luckily, vending machines that could supply me with cold, sugary drinks were everywhere. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived the humidity. I probably drank more than four liters that day.

On the way back to the town, I stopped by some more temples. Did I already mention that there are a lot of temples in Kamakura? (I also avoided the bus and walked instead.)

The Sugitmoto-dera temple was interesting because of the long stairs that were completely overgrown with grass. Finally, closer to the centre, my last temple for the day was Tsurugaoka Hachimangū. The area is large and contains museums, shrines, restaurants, shops, a few ponds and a giant ginkgo tree (which uprooted some years ago). Some of the shrines were decorated and a few people were walking around in traditional robes, but I don’t know if there were any festivities happening at the time.

Finally, after seeing a gazillion temples, it was dinner time. My friend and me met at a restaurant that serves some local curry variation. There weren’t many English words on the menu (and those English words weren’t exactly helpful, either). I outsourced the food selection to my friend who managed to order some delicious curry (non-vegetarian, obviously). Our plan to find some another place for tea or other drinks turned out to be harder than expected, because by the time we had left the curry place (only an hour later; people don’t generally appear to stay very long at restaurants here) many places had already closed. After an hour walk through the tourist district of the town (everything closed) we found a place that would still give us some tea right next to the curry place. We sat down and my friend explained to me how to look up Japanese characters in a dictionary (it now makes sense to me).

At around 20:00 we said farewell and I returned to the station. Completely knackered, I took the train back to Tokyo. By accident, I took a seat in the business class which is called Green Car. When a ticket inspector came, they said “Green Car”5 to me multiple times, but it took me a while to figure out that I just have to move to another carriage. I managed to not get kicked out and eventually arrive back at the hotel, where I proceeded to fall asleep immediately.

Thursday, June 27

Thursday was the first conference day with some workshops and a Scala Spree (an open-source hackathon) happening in the afternoon. That meant that I could spend the morning with some more sightseeing. The choice was difficult, but eventually I decided on the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the residence of the Emperor. Before I got started, I decided to withdraw some extra cash, since I had already run out of the money I had exchanged in Germany. Having learned a lot from my currency conversion mistake where I put 100 € on the Suica card, I proceeded to withdraw 50,000 ¥ (approx. 500 €) in cash from the ATM. I also topped up 50 € on my Suica card for no good reason at all.

Still not having realised my mistake(s), I boarded the Yurikamome train towards the palace. The train line passes the Nippon Television headquarters which features a giant clock, officially referred to as Really BIG Clock.

Entrance to the park area surrounding the palace is guarded by police and airport-style luggage checks. Although it would’ve been possible to visit the actual palace, it would’ve required booking a guided tour well in advance, which I didn’t. Instead, I took a walk through the East Garden, which features trees from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Apart from that, I can’t say much about the area, because it wasn’t particularly exciting. Outside of the park there was some kind of protest with one person handing me a paper with densely-written Japanese text which I still haven’t figured out. I walked back to Tokyo’s central station, which happened mostly underground. Various tourist guides claim you can – willingly or unwillingly – spend an entire day in this sprawling underground structure. One website even recommends finding a coin locker so that you can walk around more easily.

But I digress.

The final stop before going to the conference was finding a particular grocery store. A store that even Japanese people admit is way too Japanese. This store is called Donki, sort for Don Quijote. Their theme song is called Mirakurushoppingu. I think any reader can easily figure out what that means.

Shopping at Donki is an amazing experience. First of all, their A/C is set to negative five hundred degrees, a temperature I thought didn’t exist. Imagine walking into that store from the humid June weather in Tokyo.6 Why did I do this to myself? Two reasons: novelty KitKat and rice.

A few weeks before I started the trip, a colleague gave me a simple task. He asked me to bring him こしひかり, ゆめぴりか, ななつぼし, and あきたこまち which I understood are different kinds of rice. Should be trivial, right? Well, not in Donki. Donkis follow an internal structure that cannot be understood by Gaijins.

I went in there, found myself ten different flavours of KitKat and Pocky sticks and then proceeded to look for the rice. Next to the sweets, there were the hygiene products. Three speakers blasted different music each. It was cold. There were too many bright colours.

Eventually, I walked up to an employee, said Sumimasen,7 and showed them my phone with the words from above. They walked me to the appropriate aisle, where I managed to find the correct types of rice by comparing glyphs. With 5 kg of rice and 2 kg of KitKat and Pocky in my basket, I went to check out. Naturally, the cashier asked me for my passport immediately (tax-free shopping). I paid,8 but then had to go upstairs, walk through the entire second floor of Donki (more colours and music) to some other cashier to get a tax refund. They wrapped my goods carefully in three layers of plastic bags. I walked back through the entire second floor of Donki (yet more colours and music) to the exit where I was promptly struck by the humidity.

The Scala Spree was nice and we got a few good pull requests done. In the evening, the organisers took the speakers out for dinner. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant was unable to produce vegetarian sushi, which meant that the organisers brought in bento boxes from outside that us vegetarians could eat. Very thoughtful of them!

Friday, June 28

I spent the entire day at the conference. It was a really special experience, for multiple reasons. Let me explain:

The Japanese Scala community is, as far as I can tell from the outside, rather large. There are a lot of Scala books that have been translated to Japanese and there are many active bloggers and Twitter accounts. The language barrier is strong: with the majority of conversations happening in Japanese, hardly anything reaches the predominantly English-speaking community outside of Asia. This is why organizing Scala Matsuri is no small feat, so kudos to Taisuke and his team.

In order to make the event inclusive of Japanese-speakers and -non-speakers alike, the most visible feature of the conference was live interpretation. In two of the three tracks, there were two pairs of interpreters translating from Japanese to English and vice versa. This meant that talks could be held in Japanese and English and all participants could listen, no matter their proficiency in either language. Naturally, this extended to the Q&A session too: speakers could also use the pocket receiver to hear questions in their native language.

Slide in English, subtitled in Japanese
Slide in English, subtitled in Japanese

All talks that I attended – even the ones delivered in Japanese – had slides written in English. To allow Japanese attendees to follow them along more easily, speakers had to submit their slides a month in advance so that the organizers could return them with subtitles. For some slide formats, they even edited them accordingly for speakers. In my case, I received a text file and added the subtitles to my LaTeX code (thanks LuaLaTeX for supporting Unicode natively!).

On top of that, all speakers met with their assigned pair of interpreters an hour before their talk. The purpose of this meeting was to go through the slides (they had hardcopies) and discuss the topics and the terminology. The interpreters were very well-prepared and in my case had only a few questions about the jargon that I would use. Finally, they asked me to speak slowly so that it would be easier to keep up.

My personal impression was that Scala Matsuri managed to be an enjoyable event for both the locals and the international guests, trying as hard as possible to tear down the language barrier. The live interpretation was fascinating and allowed speakers and audience to share their experiences and knowledge with each other.

Saturday, June 29

My talk was right after lunch on the final conference day. In the morning, I had spoken with the interpreters (see Friday) where we prepared each other for the talk. The talk went well and I even got some questions in Japanese.

However, there were two things I still hadn’t done or seen. First of all, close to the conference venue, there is a ferris wheel. People who know me will know that I can’t not ride a ferris wheel if I see one. So I snuck out of the conference, skipping a few talks, and walked there. The weather conditions were poor, I didn’t see much, but also I didn’t care because I was riding a ferris wheel.

After the long ride (16 minutes!) was over, I made a brief stop in my hotel room and then got on a train to see the famous Shibuya crossing. The station in front of the crossing is the fourth-busiest station in the world. With the help of Google Maps and the excellent signage, it was almost trivial to find the right exit out of the 29 possible exits. Right next to the intersection, there is an eight-story shopping mall with a rooftop that gives an excellent overview over the crossing (for a small fee). I did what all tourists must do and took lots of photos of people with umbrellas walking across the street in all possible directions. With that, my tourist itinerary was complete.

To finish off the day, there was an inofficial conference dinner with speakers and other interested attendees who wanted to join in. The organisers had picked a sushi place, where we ordered Nigiri plates. I had no idea what kinds of fish would expect me, but I was in an experimenting mood so I tried most of them. One of them looked really strange to me and I pointed out to my (Japanese) neighbour that I probably won’t eat it. He was very excited, grabbed it and then showed me on his phone that it is Gunkanmaki (sea urchin). I was also very excited that he ate it for me.

Sunday, June 30

Final day in Tokyo. My flight left in the early afternoon, so I could sleep in and slowly make my way to Haneda airport. The only remaining task that day was to get rid of my superfluous cash and buy some more candy from remaining change. At the airport I discovered Tokyo Banana, a snack so advanced that I was scared to try it at home.

Remember the rice and candy I bought tax-free at the Donki? I had those in my checked luggage. But the tax receipts also stated that I needed to present the goods at customs. Customs is after luggage drop. This seems to be an impossible problem. Nobody at the airport – neither the information desk nor the Lufthansa reps – were able to figure this out. I decided to take my chances and proceeded to get ignored at customs, so the problem was solved.

Funnily enough, at the gate I realised that another friend was flying in to Haneda with the exact same airplane that I would then take back to Frankfurt. Thanks to Haneda’s airport layout it was impossible to meet, though. Naturally, we tweeted at each other instead while we were standing a few meters apart.

The return flight was rather uneventful. I had to change planes in Frankfurt, which required me having to go through luggage checks again; not because that would be necessary, but because the layout of that airport is also terrible. Being annoyed at an airport in an airport is great when you’re sleep-deprived. I arrived around 23:30 local time at my flat in Munich, where I did the same thing as Wednesday evening.

… and maybe the only time

I have set myself the goal to cease flying by end of 2019. This, naturally, makes it hard for me to come back to Japan and maybe see other places outside of Tokyo.

My personal goal is to not fly in 2020. For all past flights (including this year's), I will donate to organizations that offset CO₂ emissions. This applies to personal & professional travel.

Of course, I could have seen and done more things or stayed longer. Fortunately, I have no regrets: within the limited time of one week, I’m very happy with what I have experienced.

In case you, dear reader, ever go sightseeing in Japan or to Scala Matsuri and found some tips from this post helpful, or if you liked the writing regardless, I’d appreciate if you’d drop me a message on the interwebs.

  1. It turned out to be for the better, because it would have collided with an academic trip anyway. 

  2. Note to Asta: I didn’t create a spreadsheet this time. 

  3. with the exception of the ocean 

  4. Wednesday clocked in at 25k steps, so there was no shortage of walking regardless. 

  5. They did not say anything more helpful than just “Green Car” to me. 

  6. It was so humid that I couldn’t tell the difference between air humidity and my sweat. 

  7. “Excuse me” 

  8. Luckily, at that point I had already realised how much money I had in my pocket. The bill only made a small dent, though.