Archives For December 2013

train trip to sapporo

December 31, 2013

waiting for the train to saporoOn Thursday, the day after the exercise ended, the two of us took the train to Sapporo. It was a totally unplanned excursion. Sapporo is the capital of the northern island of Hokkaido and is the fifth largest city in Japan as far as population. It was the host city for the 1972 Winter Olympics. Every February it hosts a snow festival.

I was tired and still suffering some effects of trying to live 14 hours outside my normal circadian rhythm. It was also a cold and partly cloudy day with snow showers, especially in Sapporo. About all I could do was a very simple six-hour visit, walking around, and not even scratching the surface within Sapporo. Yet, from what very little I did see, it was still fascinating. I would love the opportunity to go back for another day or two and really walk about the city and its outer environs.

The trip started with our walking to the local Chitose train station that was about two blocks away from the station. Chitose is full of cars, but it’s also a city built for pedestrian and bicycle use. Japan’s cities are so tightly packed that you need paperwork from the local police department saying you have space to park your car before you buy one. Chitose’s streets are always full of traffic of every variety. Chitose is the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t have a rental car and really didn’t need one. And even if I had a rental, Japan drives on the wrong side of the road anyway.

waiting for the train to saporoThe ticket to Sapporo, one way, was ¥830 (a little over $8 US). There are multiple automatic ticket dispensing machines that can be selected to give you instructions in Japanese or English. As long as you have enough cash on you, you can go anywhere.

The station is a classic urban design, with the walkin entry and exit on the ground and the train platform above. Two tracks service Chitose, with a mix of high-speed trains to the airport and slower, less expensive trains to other cities. We took the less expensive train to Sapporo. The usual wait between trains is around 10-15 minutes depending on destination.

on the train to saporo with friendsThe train was clean, comfortable, and quiet, if utilitarian. It reminded me of Atlanta’s MARTA train system, down to the layout and colors. The trip to Sapporo lasted about twenty minutes.

placing a private callThe train not only traveled quietly, but the passengers were quiet. There were signs posted in English and Japanese for travelers to conduct all cellular calls in between the cars, just like this caller. Over the length of the trip he was joined by four other callers in that small area. Whether coming or going home, not once did I hear anyone break the rules with regards to cellphone use on the train. It was a wonderfully quiet and polite trip.

exiting the train in saporoAs befits its size as a major Japanese city, the train platform in Sapporo was crowded full of active people coming and going. The lower levels of the train station are jam packed with shops and stores. On the way back to Chitose we stopped off at a local Starbucks (yes, they’re here too) and warmed up with a large hot cocoa. And we did a bit of exploring, stopping in on a number of floors to just be tourists and look at the restuarants and major shopping centers. Sapporo’s train station is a big and important shopping district in its own right. I would have taken the express elevator to the observation floor (37th) in the building right next to the station, but by the time I even knew about it it was late in the day, the weather had really clouded up and there was a steady snowfall, all of which was obscuring everything.

saporo train stationoutside the saporo train stationStepping outside of the train station started our very brief, if interesting, walk about around Sapporo. Sapporo is a very young city compared to other Japanese cities such as Tokyo. When it was being planned the original city builders used a western grid system to lay it out. Sapporo reminded me a lot of Boston, especially the newly built up waterfront area where I attended the 2011 SISO conference.

I wish I’d put more time into planning my Sapporo visit, but I was so happy just to walk around and know I wasn’t stuck in the building I’d been in for all those prior twelve-hour days. Planned or not, going to Sapporo and just seeing what little I did see was more than enough. Maybe one year when I have more time I can properly plan and visit Sapporo. It would certainly be worth it.

interlude – aeon food court

December 31, 2013

raman girlsDuring the exercise I was bussed onto the post before sunup, and was bussed back to the hotel well after sundown. The best I could do was to try to make it to the Aeon food court before the food stores closed at around 8:30pm local time. This in spite of the fact that the stores said they stayed open until 9pm.

There were a number of stores in the food court: McDonalds,  Baskin-Robbins, Mr. Donut, Subway, an udon store, a raman store, and at least two sushi stores. I actually went into one of the stores with my traveling companion and watched him (and many others) enjoy eating raw fish. I declined, coward that I am.

table cleanup clothsAll the stores were served by a common eating area. The food court had an interesting requirement, at least to Western eyes like mine. There were signs in the common area that asked you politely to clean up the table you were at when you finished eating. There were several wash cloth stations in the common area that supplied pre-moistened towels for this task. I tried to remember to clean my table after I finished.

I never saw anyone else do this, but the common eating area was always clean and neat, and I never saw staff from any of the food sellers come out and clean up. I got so used to seeing a clean eating area, even the common area, that on the way back home, at a layover in Denver, someone had left a large mess of spilled popcorn and orange soda on a table in another common eating area, and I was truly shocked to see it.

baskin robins japanese styleOf all the American-Japanese cross-cultural food stores, the Baskin-Robbins was the most interesting. Every item in the store had a definite Japanese touch to it, and there were many very Japanese ice cream items. Yet I still recognized ice cream cakes, many of them with American cultural emblems on them. Here are a few that should be instantly recognizable.

snoopy + girlfriendpooh + pigletmonster uFrom top to bottom you should recognize Snoopy, Winnie the Pooh, and Sully and Mike from Monsters University. All of these are the tops of Baskin-Robbins ice cream birthday cakes.

The cultural mixing that has taken/is taking place is absolutely fascinating.

interlude – yama sakura 65

December 30, 2013

YS65 Patch

My trip to Chitose Japan was as technical support to Yamasakura-65 at Camp Higashi-Chitose, just across a local highway from New Chitose Airport. Camp Higashi-Chitose is part of the Northern Army of Japan, one of five active armies in Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force. Yamasakura-65 is an annual, bilateral exercise with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) and the U.S. military. This year it was coordinated from Chitose.

From 1 December to Wednesday, 11 December, I was on-site, 12 hours/day, the equivalent of the Maytag repairman for the JLCCTC constructive simulation. The Japanese and American army staffs were there to train at the brigade and higher levels, in a simulated major BLUFOR vs OPFOR wargame. Under these conditions it’s vital to keep the game going 24 hours a day for as long as the exercise is scheduled, as part of the simulation of war. Chitose wasn’t the only participant in the game; other groups from as far away as the US and Korea were also plugged in, providing support and simulating other aspects of warfighting. JLCCTC is about training for and studying major ground combat. For those who think that heavy ground combat is a thing of the past, all you have to do is look at the map of the eastern Pacific and see that Japan sits across from North Korea and China. Korea still thinks ground combat, and China has been building up their forces for quite some time. Considering China’s unilateral declairation of their Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea combined with the over-the-top craziness that is currently in charge in North Korea these days, YS-65 and similar training now had a certain “edge” to it.

How I got pulled into this is a long and complex story. The Reader’s Digest version: from 1998 to 2005 I helped design and write software for the core portions of JLCCTC, then went elsewhere until May of 2013 when I essentially came back. I came back to work as a contractor to Lockheed Martin, the prime for JLCCTC. Except this time I was on the “other side” of the wall, providing integration, test, installation, operations support, and training for the software system I helped to create all those years ago.

I much prefer my current position on the program, especially as it involves a lot of travel which I like. My children are grown now and I can go for two or more weeks at a time and not worry. Even long trips to Japan and beyond are no longer an issue. I just go where they tell me and use my experience and judgement along with my general instructions to do my job. And did I mention how I like to travel?

That lovely photo of me, taken by my traveling companion on my Galaxy S4, was snapped at the end of the exercise after they’d started to tear everything down for shipment back to Korea. If you’d like to see what it was like on the inside (and it’s kind of boring actually) there are official photos taken during the exercise (I wasn’t given official permission to use my camera on post during the exercise, but then I didn’t know enough to ask in advance).

Yama Sakura 65 I Corps on Flickr –

100 yen shop

December 29, 2013

100 yen store

Chitose isn’t a large city like Saporo or Tokyo. But it’s still a compact city with everything built up, especially as you head towards the train station, which serves as the central transportation hub. While I went to the Aeon mall just about every evening because it was closest to the hotel, there was a five story building that contained a mix of businesses, such as one, the 100 Yen Shop. We stopped there on our way back to the hotel from the udon shop.

The 100 Yen shop is the equivalent of the Dollar Store here in America. All the items in the store are 100 yen or less. The big difference is that every item in the 100 Yen Shop appears to be of excellent quality. The store is bright and clean, and every item is pleasingly presented to the prospective buyer. No item was out of place and there were no broken packages anywhere. Think of a budget version of Target.

japanese candy

One part of the store that almost leaped out as me was this candy section. My photography doesn’t do justice to the electric colors for all the various bags of candy that lined the wall. Marketing competition is fierce in Japan, far more so than it seems here in America.

narrow escalator

All the floors in this department store center were interconnected with elevators and escalators. What I found interesting is that the escalators in this store were only narrow enough for one person to stand. Our American escalators are built to hold at least two abreast, with room to spare. I saw this style of escalator in a number of public buildings. One of the features of many of the escalators (but not here) are photo-detectors that determine when someone walks towards an escalator. To conserve energy, a lot of escalators are simply turned off if no one is around. When someone approaches, they automatically start moving again.

happy christmas snoopy

The department store center was filled with many businesses. One floor seemed to be taken over with a book store. On the way through the book store I came across this Snoopy display. The Japanese seem to love cartoon characters, both their own as well as American. This display combined their deep interest in Snoopy with Christmas. It was oddly touching.

I wish I had had more time to just walk about and observe the intersection and intertwining of Japanese and American pop culture. Perhaps when I go back to Japan next February.

udon supper

December 29, 2013

udon restaurant

Sunday was the first day on the job in Chitose. It was a basic meet-and-greet day where I was introduced to all the folks I’d be working with while staying in Chitose. My primary task was as technical adviser, a kind of insurance to fall back on in case something went wrong during the time I was there. The staff running the systems were well qualified in the operation of all the systems, and even showed a deep enough understanding that they could (and did) debug and solve their own problems. But I was there Just In Case something horrible went wrong.

The work day was only nine hours long and I got out well before the local shops and restaurants closed for the evening. On the advice of my traveling companion and another contractor we’d met on site, we walked a few blocks away from the hotel to a local udon shop for supper.

presenting the menu

Udon is thick wheat flour noodle. The various shops that make it and serve it take great pride in the quality and presentation of their udon-based dishes. According to my companions udon is made fresh every day. This particular shop was an example of this, with everyone there helping us select our particular udon meal.

The Japanese make a variety of dishes from it, from a single soup with udon noodles to fairly sophisticated concoctions. The one I had (and shouldn’t have had) included seaweed, a whipped sweet potato based cream, and a very soft boiled egg. This is what my traveling companions ordered, and I went along because I didn’t know any better. It was alright as long as it was hot, but as it cooled the sweetness of the sweet potato combined with the soft-boiled egg caused a severe gag reaction that forced me to stop eating.

making my udon mealudon meal

Fortunately for me I also added some Japanese fried chicken to my order, so I was full enough by the time I left. The next time I ordered udon, it was at the same type of store back in the Aeon mall. My second udon meal was excellent and I finished it off completely.