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Friday, February 20, 2009

Random Thoughts: Adventure in Japan -- Part 2

Adventure in Japan - Part 1

It has been a while since I returned from Osaka, Japan, but I thought I'd share a bit more of my experience in Japan for people who would like to visit Japan one day. Let me start off with some traveling tips.
  • For a lot of people (61 countries and regions to be exact) including US citizens, visiting Japan for non-paid activities for 90 days or less does not require a visa. Just buy a plane ticket and go. It's that easy!

  • There are several ways to get Japanese Yen. You can get it from your local bank before the trip. However, be aware that you have to pre-order, and it might take them up to 5 business days to get the money ready for you. They also charge a service fee ($10 for US Bank) for the exchange (from US Dollar to Yen or later from Yen to US Dollar after you return). This option works well if you exchange large quantities of money. A more convenient way to get Japanese Yen for a short term visitor is to get the Japanese money from ATMs at the Japanese airport. You will be charged about 3% for the exchange plus the ATM fee (probably $2). This option is better for small amount of exchange.

  • Before visiting Japan, I was told that most places in Japan would take credit cards such as American Express of Visa. After visiting Japan, I learned the hard way that this is not true. Japanese businesses mostly don't take credit cards. Even McDonald's in downtown Osaka refused to take any credit cards.

  • Power outlets in Japan are different from North America. North America has polarized outlets (one big one small). Japan has non-polarized outlets (both small). Also they don't have three holes, only two. If you have polarized plugs, then you need an adapter. The hotel might loan you one for free.

  • Standard voltage in Japan is 100V. Make sure your devices can operate at 100V. If not, you need a transformer.
For the rest of the blog post, I'll focus on one single topic: Japanese Food.

The conference provided free lunch everyday in the form of a very traditional style of Japanese food: Bento Box. According to Wikipedia:
Bento (弁当) is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container.
The three pictures below show the three kinds of bento box lunches I was fortunate to try out. Each bento box contained a great variety of things, including rice, sea food, and lots of pickled things. Everything in a bento box is served cold, removing the need to heat up things using a microwave. I must confess that although the bento boxes looked very colorful and pretty, cold rice and too much pickled meat/vegetables just didn't quite agree with me. And I must mention that all the beautiful wooden boxes were properly recycled to save trees!

Because of the generosity of the HRI 2010 conference organizers (they covered most of the meals) and my very busy schedule, I only had the chance to visit one traditional Japanese restaurant during the trip. The picture below on the left shows the front of the small restaurant in downtown Osaka named Money House. The picture on the right shows the hall way inside, just wide enough for one person, a typical setup for traditional Japanese restaurants.

Since Japan is entirely made up of islands, it was not surprising to see lots of sea food dishes on the menu. Since a friend in our dinner group was an American who had lived in Japan for 8 years, he took charge of all the ordering, and we got to experience some interesting food. For example, deep fried squids (left), octopus balls (middle), and of course, raw fish (right). The first two actually tasted great despite the weirdness, however, I shied away from the raw fish, because I don't ever eat raw meat (e.g., a rare steak).

Some other dishes are very similar to Chinese dishes, such as dumplings, stir fried clams, and boiled green soy beans.

There were dishes that tasted very American too, such as the big Chicken Nugget shown below. Alcohol is also a big part of a Japanese culture (see all those bottles in the middle picture), and I wonder how many people in Japan drink and drive. The dinner was great! There is only one thing I'd like to complain though: why were all the dishes served in such small plates? See the stack of small plates in the last picture? We are a bunch of hungry grad students and I am not kidding when I say we can eat a lot!

For a group of 13 people, the dinner cost per person was 3000 yen (roughly about $35 USD), quite expensive in American standards, but it was well worth it. How often does one get the chance to eat a real authentic Japanese dinner? And by the way, they did not take credit cards. :)

The easiest way to put a baby to sleep is to give him classical music!