Archive for February, 2010

Conference day

Posted in diary with tags , on February 28, 2010 by mikele

7 am wake up and off to Kitasenri station; jump on the train, get off at Minamikata where the dear Yusuke is waiting for me to go to Shin Osaka station and catch the Shinkansen train to Tokyo. The Shinkansen is renown for its being super fast and the many record-beating stats:

The Shinkansen (“New Main Line”?) also known as “the bullet train” is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan operated by four Japan Railways Group companies. Starting with the 210 km/h (130 mph) Tōkaidō Shinkansen in 1964, the now 2,459 km (1,528 mi) long network has expanded to link most major cities on the islands of Honshū and Kyūshū at speeds up to 300 km/h (186 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record 581 km/h (361 mph) for maglev trainsets in 2003.

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world’s busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers a year (March 2008),[1] it has transported more passengers (over 6 billion)[2] than any other high speed line in the world.[3] Between Tokyo and Osaka, the two largest metropolises in Japan, up to ten trains per hour with 16 cars each (1,300 seats capacity) run in each direction with a minimum of 3 minutes between trains.

The Shinkansen is very reliable, and in 2003, JR Central reported that the Shinkansen’s average arrival time was within six seconds of the scheduled time. This includes all natural and human accidents and errors and is calculated over roughly 160,000 Shinkansen trips completed.[5] The previous record, from 1997, was 18 seconds.

Shinkansen, ShinOsaka station

Luckily we got on the Nozomi train, which is the fastest Shinkansen according to my guide Yusuke. Not too cheap though: it costed me 35000 yen for a return trip, which is roughly 250 pounds! Anyways.. it took us only 2:30 hours to get to Tokyo from Osaka (515 km).
And apart from a guy sitting next to us that kept on burping without rest (is that allowed on the shinkansen? I couldn’t dare asking) the trip was a breeze, even more when the hostess brought us some delicious bento (= japanese packaged meal)….

Lunchbox #1 Lunchbox #2

First impression of Tokyo: not that different from Osaka, just much busier and with more tourists (or westeners in general). So we walked to the conference venue, which was located at Keio University, Mita campus (by the way I just run into the list of Tokyo’s universities which is stunning!).
No one’s there yet so I take the time to immortalize the moment (without Yusuke knowing):

I got Yusuke

Funny shaped building View from the conference room

The view from the window is pretty interesting too. So conference starts.. talks talks ontology bla bla bla … and after the conference we got invited to a reception in a chinese restaurant closeby. Food pretty ok, chitchatting with various people and also had a chance to listen some traditional music.. how nice.

Small chinese interlude Small chinese interlude

Finally, I say goobye to my ‘local’ colleagues …

My Colleagues

… and off to my room, where I find a nice surprise:

How timely - I forgot mine

A nice and soft pijama! .. as usual I’ve forgotten mine..


Off to tokyo!

Posted in diary with tags , on February 26, 2010 by mikele

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Tomorrow I’m off to Tokyo for a few days, attending the InterOntology conference. I’m looking forward to get on the train and see some new places in Japan.. so expect a bunch of new pictures soon!

The hotel I’m staying at seems to be pretty central too, so hopefully I wont get lost too often..

Learning the japanese language

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 25, 2010 by mikele

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I thought it’d be useful to put together a list of useful resources for learning the japanese language. Not that I expect to achieve that goal any time soon! But .. chi ben inizia e’ a meta’ dell’opera !


  • this one is the best! sleek interface, easy to use.
  • Denshi Jisho (meaning “electronic dictionary”) is an online Japanese dictionary that focuses on powerful search features and an easy-to-use interface. The data used by Denshi Jisho comes from Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC project and currently holds approximately 110,000 entries of a general character.

  • the interface is a bit messy, but it does the job
  • This server provides simple access to the English/Japanese Japanese/English dictionary edict (and several other related dictionaries). Searches can be either based upon English, romaji, or raw Japanese. Searches result in the listing of pairs of related Japanese and English. There is also a kanji database server as well, which gives access to kanjidic.


  • I think this one is quite good for beginners, it presents simple but useful situations and it also has audio recordings of the conversations
  • This content teaches Japanese language and culture through the experiences of an expatriate family newly transferred to Tokyo. Learning is based on serialized lessons showing everyday experiences of a high school senior, Jason Miller, and his parents from Seattle, Washington. As Jason and his parents meet new friends, neighbors, teachers and business associates, more information will be provided to viewers about life, culture and Japanese history.


    not much for now..

    Japanese monks marry?

    Posted in preconceptions with tags , , on February 24, 2010 by mikele

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    I didn’t know that, and actually I was pretty surprised when I first met some monks that live happily with their families. And this applies to both Shinto and Buddhist priests alike.

    Shinto (“the way of the gods”) is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people and as old as Japan itself. It remains Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism.
    Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.

    Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BC. It consists of the teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Of the main branches of Buddhism, it is the Mahayana or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism which found its way to Japan.
    Buddhism was imported to Japan via China and Korea in the form of a present from the friendly Korean kingdom of Kudara (Paikche) in the 6th century. While Buddhism was welcomed by the ruling nobles as Japan’s new state religion, it did not initially spread among the common people due to its complex theories.

    Sincerely, I like that and I think that the ideal of chastity (e.g. the catholic one) for non-hermit religious officers is bullshit. I mean, if priests have to live in the middle of a non-religious community in a stable manner, why shouldn’t they marry like anybody else?
    But I guess it’s a long discussion..

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    If you have 69 dollars to invest in this topic, there’s a book that tells you the whole story about marriage in japanese buddhism: Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism, by Richard Jaffe:

    Buddhism comes in many forms, but in Japan it stands apart from all the rest in one most striking way–the monks get married. In Neither Monk nor Layman, the most comprehensive study of this topic in any language, Richard Jaffe addresses the emergence of an openly married clergy as a momentous change in the history of modern Japanese Buddhism. He demonstrates, in clear and engaging prose, that this shift was not an easy one for Japanese Buddhists. Yet the transformation that began in the early Meiji period (1868-1912)–when monks were ordered by government authorities to adopt common surnames and allowed to marry, to have children, and to eat meat–today extends to all the country’s Buddhist denominations.

    An interesting article by Soko Morinaga, titled Celibacy: the view of a Zen monk from Japan. He’s the Buddist monk. Rector of Hanazono University.

    The issue of monastic celibacy differs for each sect of Japanese Buddhism and for each individual monk. We cannot say that the social issues I have outlined above reflect the definitive state of contemporary Japanese Buddhism but it is true that where these various problems do exist, they arise from the marriage of monks. Moreover, in thinking about this question, we should not overlook the fact that nuns are usually neglected and that an exclusively male-centred point of view is argued.


    There’s more: you might run into japanese monk-rappers too, as attested by cnn article Japanese monks serve up alcohol and hip hop music to lure in followers..

    Kenson / Kenkyo [=Modesty]

    Posted in japanese concepts with tags on February 22, 2010 by mikele

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    The word

    The Japanese word kenson translates as “humble, modest” and is composed by two kanji signs, the first one (read ken) meaning “humble, modest” and the second one (read son) meaning “humble, modest”.

    Japanese people are very modest, it’s something which is deeply rooted in their culture and that constitutes a remarkable point of difference with our western culture (probably even more with american culture).

    Being modest means that you’d never boast yourself about anything; rather, you’d be more inclined to claiming that you’re less that what you really are. A social interaction based on this paradigm is likely to become a reciprocal race aiming at who can show more modesty. This mind frame generates various problems: imagine for example a job interview, where you’re supposed to be ‘selling’ yourself. How could you do that if culture forbids you from showing off your skills a bit?
    Quite interestingly, what I hear from my colleagues is that job interviews are a relatively new thing in japan. The process of westernization has made it a common thing to do, but still some japanese wouldn’t find themselves comfortable in such a role. Samurais didn’t do job interviews, apparently!


    An example of cultural modesty my colleagues brought up is that when they’re talking to me, they’re dropping the usual ‘appellations’ they’d normally use when talking among themselves (e.g. ‘professor’ or ‘sensei’). So they just call themselves by surname (despite their differences in ranking) as a way to make me feel more comfortable, that is, as an attempt to be very polite to me. The underlying assumption is that I would feel somehow distressed by being in a situation where certain people are higher than me in the social scale. So, with an act of respect and kindness, japanese people ‘lower‘ themselves to a position that normally wouldn’t be theirs.

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    Another example is the gift-giving ‘ceremony’: the proper form to do this is by denigrating your gift, saying that it’s just a small and invaluable thing irrespectively of how valuable your gift is in reality. And all of this, cause being modest is the way. Praising or describing the positive features of the gift, as we would normally do in italy or britain, would be considered vain or maybe even rude. By the way, the exact gift-giving formula is “tsumaranai mono desu ga” (it’s nothing, really).

    A related example, they claimed, can be the one of the samurai who, when in public, apparently mistreats his wife by not giving her any attention. By doing so he ‘lowers’ her partner (and I guess japanese would say that in doing that he’s lowering himself too), thus making the other people present more at ease.
    There must be also some sort of soldier-related machismo involved in such a situation, but I still haven’t figure how what’s the interplay between the two attitudes there!

    Other material

    To conclude, I found an interesting essay on the subject (Kenkyo: The Virtue of Modesty in Japan), written by someone who lived in Japan for a while. Nice read, here’s a small excerpt:

    One of my greatest pleasures is giving gifts, and in Japan I am often presented with the opportunity to indulge myself. The proper form when giving a gift to someone, however, is to humble oneself and denigrate the gift, saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga”—which we might translate as “this is only a trifle” or “it’s nothing, really.” And yet, despite knowing this, I still sometimes cannot hide a smile when presenting someone with a gift! I suppose it is vanity, or something vaguely “cultural” that makes me feel a sense of satisfaction in selecting and giving nice gifts to others, but for whatever reason, I have difficulty concealing my enthusiasm and restraining myself.

    This can lead to confusion, of course, and naturally such misunderstandings can run both ways. For example, whenever I mention Paris Hilton in class (a mercifully rare event), I am usually reminded by at least one student of a visit she paid to Japan a few years ago, promoting something or other, in which she disdainfully tossed aside a stuffed animal that she had been given at the start of an interview. As one might expect, the Japanese media was not impressed with her attitude, but I wonder if she had been told, through an interpreter, something like “this is nothing, really” or “this is just a cheap doll, but…” Normally, I’m not one to defend such vanity, but I often think that Japanese humility can be excessive and, for an outsider, downright confusing.

    Trip to Arima Onsen

    Posted in diary with tags , on February 21, 2010 by mikele

    Today I took a trip to the hot springs in Arima, next to Osaka (one hour by bus). (see the whole slideshow here)

    Arima Onsen (有馬温泉 Arima Onsen?) is an onsen, or hot springs in Kita-ku, Kobe, Japan. This Onsen is still a hidden treasure of modern Kobe, behind Mount Rokko. It attracts many Japanese who want tranquility with beautiful natural surroundings and yet easy access from the busy cities in Kansai metropolitan area including Osaka.

    It’s early morning and the streets of Osaka are strangely empty…

    not many people around (strangely so)

    .. a good breakfast to get started…

    priorities first

    jump on the bus..

    on the bus

    and I arrive in Arima Onsen, amidst various groups of japanese tourists..

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    I take a path uphill to a little but marvelous shrine..

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    …then down again through the forest and straight to the public baths!

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    I even got a ‘foot massage’ on my way out…


    .. and quick walk around Arima Onsen’s temples before heading back home…

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    A Japanese Barbecue

    Posted in diary with tags , , on February 14, 2010 by mikele

    So nice – I got invited by my colleagues at work to a traditional japanese barbecue in Ibaraki.

    Got on the monorail train from the university station, the trip is pretty short, 20 mins or less… but the view is quite interesting:

    Bampaku-kinen-koen station


    Finally I meet the guys, they’re already getting things ready. But hey wait a minute.. isn’t this a temple?



    To my surprise… YES! we’re gonna have a barbie in a quite unusual venue (for me). I soon find out that one of the guys is the owner, a monk who lives there with his family. So I take the opportunity to sneak into his wonderful house…

    The gardenIMG_0543


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    From the house, you can reach the adjacent temple:


    IMG_0556 the wise men IMG_0554

    But outside the BBQ has started already! The local specialty that people love to grill over here is .. guess what: OYSTERs (which probably it’s not that unusual, but I’ve never had them this way!




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    The night comes and so we move right into the temple (!) for dessert. Quite shocking I must say, but I enjoyed so much the atmosphere (and the other people were really kind in putting up with my attempts to speak japanese) that I soon forgot all the religious pre-concepts I had..