Tagjapan

Wrap-up: San Francisco, Tokyo, Berlin

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What a trip it is that’s coming to an end for me today as I’m sitting at Narita Airport, bound for Berlin via Istanbul. Once I reach Tegel Airport, I’ll have rounded the globe, by way of Amsterdam, San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo and Istanbul.

San Francisco

After a couple of pretty intense months running several conferences back-to-back, the plan was to head to San Francisco for just a week as a speaker at O’Reilly’s new hardware/software/IoT conference, O’Reilly Solid. And that happened, and it was great. My talk went over pretty well. Drones were flown. Many great conversations with friends new and old. Many ideas to follow up on. Only when the week was up, I didn’t go straight back to Berlin.

Night scene at Shibuya Station

Tokyo

An email came in, asking if I could join a delegation from Berlin to Tokyo, to talk about Berlin’s tech, startup and IoT scene, and about the potential of exchange and collaboration between both cities. While sitting at SolidCon, I started rebooking my travel plans. Within a couple of days, I was headed to Tokyo via Honolulu, writing presentations for two Japanese audiences: For a more corporate setting, for Recruit Technologies (concretely, their Advanced Technologies Lab) who invited us via their Berlin partner Bistream for the Berlin Innovation Meetup. And for the startup teams at Samurai Startup Island.

As part of a group of Berlin’s finest including Zoe of Xyo, Sophie of Headwave, Leah of The Wye and Makoto of Bistream, I would be representing the city to these Japanese stakeholders who wanted to learn more about Berlin & Germany & the tech scene there.

Stomping for more exchange

So I went stomping for more formal and informal exchange both between disciplines as well as regions – both topics that have always been high on my personal priority list: It’s the reason all the conferences I’m involved in have a strong international focus and they tend to be massively transdisciplinary. You can find both (similar) presentations in my blog posts (Recruit presentation, Samurai presentation).

In between these talks, I had some time to catch up on work, and to meet more folks. My old university friends Ryo and Shota kindly took the time to meet up a few times, so we got to catch up and they showed me around in a way I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the city.

A glimpse into the Japanese tech scene

Héctor, part of the excellent team of Digital Garage, kindly gave me a tour of the DG headquarters.

 

We also got a tour and a series of high level meetings at KOIL, the Kashiwa no ha Open Innovation Lab, too. An impressive space indeed.

The new coworking area at KOIL

 

With Samurai, Digital Garage and KOIL I feel I got a good glimpse into the Japanese tech scene – and one that’s worth expanding even further. I truly hope to get the chance to do that sooner rather than later.

Berlin Innovation Meetup at Recruit

 

I cannot stress enough how important I think these kinds of exchanges are. As global as our world has become thanks to the internet, there’s a surprising lack of knowledge and deeper mutual understanding between Japan in Germany concretely, and Asia and Europe/America more generally. Whereas the exchange between US and Europe in particular has been going strong for decades, eased along by shared language and history, the same doesn’t hold true quite as much between Asia and the Western World.

These Udon noodles don’t have anything to do with the story. They just were really yummy.

Building bridges for understanding and collaboration

Building bridges, and thus increasing our mutual understanding, takes time. Face-to-face time, too. We all have tremendous amounts to gain from fostering this exchange: Together, strengthened by diversity and mutual understanding, we will build a richer culture, better products, and – I expect and hope – lots of interesting, unexpected new things.

What’s next?

In a couple of weeks I’m headed back to San Francisco to continue some of the conversations started over the last few months. As for the Tokyo-Berlin exchange, I’m looking forward to continue working with Makoto and Takeshi (Bistream and Recruit respectively) and the Berlin crew and contribute whatever I can to take the next steps there. What form or shape this will take eventually is hard to tell just yet. Then of course there’s the question if we can bring ThingsCon to Japan as well. We’ve been having a number of very interesting conversations about localized events around the globe, and we’ll see where these lead eventually. Personally, I’d be quite interested in setting up more of these formal or informal exchanges and collaborations.

Post-event dinner with the Berlin crew

 

As someone said during one of our Tokyo meetings:

Several people sitting at a table, having a conversation. This is it. This is how new things start.

I couldn’t agree more.

Berlin Night @ Tokyo (slides)

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As part of a Berlin delegation of technologists, startups and connectors, Bistream kindly invited me to Tokyo to speak at a number of events and meet the local tech, startup, hardware, IoT and innovation scene.

Part of this was a presentation at Samurai Startup Island (event link, Japanese), one of Japan’s top startup incubators. I spoke about hardware startups and the Internet of Things, commonalities and potential of an exchange of ideas/skills/talent between Tokyo and Berlin, and about ThingsCon.

 

Slides below. Enjoy!

 

A visit to KOIL

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After catching up on some work and admin, I was invited to join a meeting over at KOIL, the Kashiwa no ha Open Innovation Lab. It’s part venture arm, part coworking space, part office rental, and it’s been operational just since April 2014. As we went on a tour, it quickly became apparent that it’s all a very high-end, professional affair that incorporates the flexibility as well as the look & feel of grass roots spaces like Berlin’s Betahaus, but supported by a serious budget. The pretty well-equipped in-house workshop space is a good indication.

But of course, as much as I like to visit office spaces, the most important thing was to meet the KOIL team, including a few very high-ranking members of the management, who took the time to chat, give feedback to one of our tour member’s hardware prototype, and to discuss potential further collaborations.

Since the conversation took us well into the evening, a few of us just wrapped up the Friday night with a short trip to Akihabara, aka gadget & game central of Tokyo, where we had ramen followed by a few rounds of games at one of the larger arcades as well as photo booths. When we came back out into the street, I could hardly believe just how quiet the city seemed in comparison to the deafening soundscape inside the arcade.

Dispatch from the road: The first few days in Tokyo

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Tokyo has been treating me very nicely these last couple of days. It’s a true pleasure to be here, meet old and new friends, and to continue lots of conversations started in Berlin, San Francisco and online.

A few days ago at a dinner after O’Reilly Solid in San Francisco, Héctor García had very kindly invited me to a tour of the Digital Garage HQ in Tokyo. DG is fascinating as it’s not only an excellent incubator these days, but also has been at the forefront of all internet developments in Japan for about 20 years. It was lovely to see the offices and to enjoy a conversation about the relevance of (still) blogging today. Héctor is also the author of A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, which I just ordered and recommend you do, too.) Thank you for everything, Héctor!

Gratuitous shot of some sides at dinner.

 

Almost by chance I had a chance to visit Chris Palmieri, founder of AQ, again. Back during my last trip to Japan, the AQ team had kindly invited M. and me to join for a Hanami picnic. This time, after introducing me to the whole team, Chris took me out to a favorite restaurant of his specialized in tonkotsu (pork belly). Over this mouth-watering lunch we caught up about the IoT, interfaces that go beyond screens and how to run an international business.

 

In the evening of May 29, I got to attend one of the occasions that made this trip possible: The Berlin Innovation Meetup, a Berlin-Tokyo talent and knowledge exchange night organized by Recruit Technologies and Bistream as part of Recruit’s Berlin Tokyo Project.

Prepping backstage with the teams of Bistream, Xyo, Headwave and our translators.

 

Together with a delegation of Berlin’s finest, we spent the evening discussing Berlin’s and Tokyo’s tech, startup, hardware and Internet of Things ecosystem, and potential for fostering exchange between Japan and Germany.

A room full of technologists, designers & engineers, brought together by Recruit Technologies.

Leah Stuhltrager of Berlin’s top art & tech venue The Wye killing it.

The view from Recruit Technologies HQ, floor 33. It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but the park-like thing you see between the high rise buildings is the Emperor’s Palace.

Along the way, I gathered a new title.

Post-presentation dinner with the crew.

 

A big thank you for allowing me to be part of this great exchange to Recruit and Bistream, and particularly to Makoto Takeda and Takeshi Nakano!

10 photos.

1

kyoto berlin

make a wish

Mr T Rex says thumbs up

Panopticon

Third Floor Espresso

access

irish flag

st patricks

st patricks

door bricks door

A week with lovely visitors from Tokyo (Thanks, Tomomi and Paul!) and a trip to Dublin. 1. Kyoto > Berlin 2. Make a wish! 3. Mr T-Rex says: Thumbs up! 4. Third Floor Espresso, Dublin 5. Access 6. Irish Flag 7. Panopticon 8.-9. St Patrick’s Cathedral 10. Bricks & doors

Japan Travel Log #5

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Day 12

After the out-and-about day yesterday, we took it slow today. Slept in, got snacks from a lovely bakery on our street, and strolled along a small canal that is densely framed on both sides by cherry trees in full bloom – in fact, they’re already peaking and slowly starting to shed leaves again. It’s a gorgeous sight, and there are many people walking around enjoying them at any given time, and taking lots of photos. Which makes me feel slightly less awkward for doing the same. Since the sun was out and it turned out to be almost an early summer day, we opted for more walking in the guise of a shopping tour (no success on that front, but plenty of sun and fresh air), interrupted by lunch at a small and quite lovely vegetarian place, Annon Cook (2F 2-25-1 Jingumae, Shibuya), and a pick-me-up at Streamer Coffee Company before slowly ambling over to Shimokitazawa again for the afternoon that lead us straight to drinks with yakitori and another veggie dinner. Early night in to finish off the relaxing day. Tomorrow the museums will be open again (most are closed on Mondays) and there’ll be a business meeting in between.

Day 13

The weather is still holding up, so it’s bright and sunny. One of M’s friends is involved in a Fab Café in Tokyo, which turned out to be just around the corner from our apartment. It’s a lovely community space and quite a nice café, too, so we stayed quite a while and had their trademark marshmallow man coffees and had some coasters etched with good ol’ Fuji-san.

Fab Café
Fab Café

Fab Café in Shibuya
Fab Café

Marshmallow Man at Fab Café
Fab Café’s signature drink

Coasters at Fab Café
Etching coasters

I’m sure Hokusai would have approved that his wood print motifs are now cut into pieces of wood directly, by means of mass customization.

A quick swingby meeting at Hario HQ allowed me to meet the good folks behind our favorite coffee equipment maker and marvel at a violin made fully from glass. I forgot to take a photo, but I’m told it fully works, and concerts have been played on it before. Then we’re back off to explore, this time Ueno Park, a lovely large park full of museums and the university of arts. Having underestimated the lure of the cherry blossoms, for which Ueno Park is famous, the place is so packed with visitors that we stay on the outskirts and take a leisurely stroll through Ueno proper instead, before giving the Mori Art Museum over at Roppongi Hills a shot. This part of expat-heavy Roppongi is a bit like a direct transplant from a cyberpunk movie – imagine the headquarters of the Umbrella Corporation or something – a big complex of high rises and underground floors of corporate HQs and shopping malls, all woven together with escalators, a couple of big video screens, and the ever present Starbucks. It’s a bit horrible and a bit fascinating at the same time, yet seems quite popular. Also, it’s the home of the Mori Art Museum, which I’m told is a fantastic museum for modern art and includes a viewing platform that looms over downtown Tokyo. Today though, we’re too late and the museum is closed, so we postpone for another day and recharge in one of the many cafés.

Another swing by Piss Alley for some tonkotsu (pork belly) ramen and gyoza (dumplings), and (at last!) a round of karaoke in Shibuya makes me feel like I’m adapting well.

Day 14

Eventually, the rain caught up. Indoor day! Akihabara, Mori Art Museum, 360 view & bar. Then, soaked from a sudden downpour and underequipped on the umbrella front, Shibuya for a dessert of crepe and cheese cake.

Tokyo by night
Night view at Tokyo from Mori Art Museum

Ice
Drinks at the bar in Mori Art Museum

Day 15

The fantastic, cute local bakery in our street, Tolo, keeps giving me presents: For every item I buy, I get a sample gift for free, of the most awesome kind – based on curry, on cheese & bacon, on anything savoury, really. So the sweetness of the cinnamon rolls is nicely balanced out. It’s a really nice gesture, and gets me to try things I wouldn’t necessarily get for breakfast.

Met with Chris, who investigates urban spaces with a focus on actual liveability, like how well can kids play here, or how can commercial and non-commercial spaces co-exist in a city that is so consumption driven? First, he took me to Omotesando Koffee, a fantastic coffee shop which was set up as a temporary space inside an old residential house. Think a tiny traditional building that you enter through a just as tiny traditional garden, only that instead of the living room you encounter a symbolic metal cube that contains the coffee shop proper, barista and all. My words don’t capture the atmosphere, which is both serene and friendly:

Omotesando Koffee

Omotesando Koffee

Across the alley, there’s an empty lot with tall grass – also a rarity, as it’s big enough so that the owner could try to make a fair bit of money by turning it into, for example, commercial parking lots, which seems quite a common practice.

Omotesando Koffee
Lot opposite Omotesando Koffee

We took a walk and Chris showed me what he called the Pearl of Tokyo, Aoyama Toei, a small area of old (post WWII) public housing that is being slowsly phased out. About half of the apartments are already empty and won’t be rented out again, yet the area is anything but abandoned: The residents have turned the space between the houses into beautiful little gardens, and in between the green you can see cats, birds, bumble bees – all of which are otherwise quite rare in the hectic Tokyo urban landscape.

Aoyama Toei

Aoyama Toei

Aoyama Toei
Ironically, the public park is the only part of greenery that’s fenced in.

It’s also a truly non-commercial, residential area, and so it feels like a laid back little island inside the city, even though it’s just a few blocks away from one of the major shopping streets. I find it fascinating that this area, that was built on the cheap and I imagine not exactly a desireable place to live 20 years ago, now has this new life of a completely different sort, which the architects most likely hadn’t planned for. A quick dash back to the coffee shop to pick up Michelle and another shot, the off to a picnic for Hanami, the enjoyment of the cherry blossoms. The good folks of AQ Works & Tokyo Art Beat had invited us along, and so equipped with snacks and drinks we headed to Aoyama Cemetery, where we chatted, ate and drank for a couple of hours between cherry trees and shrines. It’s great to hang out with your tribe in a completely different context, and we felt right at home:

Hanami

Hanami

Hanami

Also, thanks to Chris and Paul I had the chance to get a tiny bit of a better understanding of the nature of wabi-sabi, part philosophy, part design aesthetic. Instead of even trying to give a half thought out definition around embracing flaws and finity, I’ll refer to this quote: “One does not lament for the fallen flower, one loves it.” Dinner with our friend Ryo brought us back to Shinjuku, or rather to Hot Pepper, a restaurant themed around local organic food. While most of the food was quite yummy and everything was incredibly fresh, I’m still not entirely convinced of – but fascinated by – chicken breast with white strawberry sauce.

Dinner at Hot Pepper
Dinner at Hot Pepper

Dinner at Hot Pepper
Map of local food sources at Hot Pepper

That said, it’s fantastic to see these locally produced and absolutely fresh goods prepared with so much love, and had we not have to transport the stuff across a whole continent, I’d have stocked up on all the things they had. One more stroll around Shinjuku that ended in some arcade time, and time flew until we just barely caught the last train back to our HQ. Since it was a week day, no Tokyo Metro staffer was there to push us into the subway with white gloves, a practice I’m told is not uncommon for the last trains leaving the city on weekends.

Day 16

Our friend Tam came down from the North-East to join us for a day in Tokyo. Still tired from last night, we resorted to a desperate Starbucks Coffee before going on a nice, long stroll. Kappabashi-dori is a street full of professional restaurant equipment. In Japan, that means a fascinating mix of pots, top notch knives, arcane coffee equipment – and the (in)famous plastic food that is used to display the menu out in front of the shop instead of pure text or photo based menues in the West. No plastic food for us though, but a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans.

Looping back through the older, more traditional neighborhood of Asukasa, and we hop on a boat down the river. Fun fact: The Philippe Starck-designed Asahi Beer company HQ is built to look like a glass of beer, and next to it there’s what was supposed to look like a big golden flame on top. Yet, something went wrong, and now the flame was adapted to lie on its side, looking like some horrible, huge, golden, steaming pile of poo, which is why it’s often referred to as the “golden turd”. The boat ride ended at a gorgeous park that first was the Emperor’s, then a Shogun’s hunting grounds, before being opened to the public for good just after WWII.

Hamarikyu Garden
Hamarikyo Garden

Hamarikyu Garden
Hamarikyo Garden

Facing the water on one side and a busy office neighborhood on the other, this time of the day it was quite quiet. Like an island of calm in the middle of the city. On the mono rail, which took us on a loop through Tokyo Bay and right into town, where after another cup of drip coffee in another vaguely French-/Euro-themed café we met the lovely Mozilla Japan team. Did you know that Japan has an alternative Firefox logo, Foxkeh, with a more kitten-like, manga style fox. Also, I learned about an Arduino hack that gives you ambient awareness of the data passing through your browsed by type (user-requested, cookie, other, I believe were the categories) by means of either blinkenlights or drips of spirits into a cocktails glass. At dinner, Tetsuya blew our minds, when it turned out he had asked the restaurant to bring us not just any random dessert platter, but instead on with well-wishes for our engagement and a big, chocolate-and-strawberry drawn Mozilla on it. Check this out!

Mozilla Japan
Mozilla Japan HQ

The Mozilla Japan crew is ace!
Mozilla dinner

Another night in Japan, another cultural notion: ichi-go ichi-e, a popular Japanese idiom. It is often translated as “one opportunity, one encounter” or “treasure evey meeting, for it will never recur”. Thanks, Tam, for the explanation! It still is somewhat mindblowing how deeply engrained in Japanese culture the ideal of hospitality is, and how much meaning is conveyed in this one expression – so much so that it even transcends the language barrier that I have been hidden behind all this trip. If I can manage to adapt even a shadow of these principles I’ve learned about on this trip, I’d be a better person for it.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he pointed out the closest German equivalent to this: So jung kommen wir nicht mehr zusammen!, roughly translated as we’ll never meet again this young, maybe doesn’t go as deep, as it’s mostly used to enjoy an evening with friends and stay out a little longer.

And on this note, Michelle and I headed home, first to the apartment to pack and catch a few hours of sleep before catching an early flight in the morning.

In fact, I’m writing this on the plane, to be posted when I’m back in Berlin. I’d like to once more thank all the people who made this trip so special for me. First and foremost Michelle, of course, and also Tam, Ryo, Ryohei, Tetsuya, the good folks at the Fab Café and all our hosts. And last but not least the lovely people I had a chance to meet along the way, and our friends who sent us all the lovely notes I’ve mostly not yet gotten to respond to – you rock.

Rokusuke + Hachi
Rokusuke + Hachi

That said, I don’t want to end on a melodramatic note, so I recommend you plan a trip to see the country for yourself, and if you want to get into the mood for it and don’t mind its focus on organized crime, Jake Adelstein‘s book Tokyo Vice is at the same time a primer on Japan, its media and crime scene, written with an international perspective and it’s quite frankly hilarious. Go get it over at Amazon!