Tagtokyo

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!

Japan Travel Log #4

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Day 11

What a day! My old school friend Ryo kindly offered to take us on a little tour, so after (at last!) moving into our airbnb place, we hurried over to the fish market to meet him for lunch. It was Sunday, so the market itself was largely closed, but the restaurants in the old market area were open. We went to one that has been serving top notch sushi around for some 80 years or so. Finding a decent vegetarian option for Michelle turned out extra tricky here, but in this case, who can blame them. In the end, some lovely stuff arrived for her, and a set of incredible mixed sea food for Ryo and me.

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Fish market!

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No photo is complete without the hand gesture. In the background, the fantastic fish market restaurant.

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Mixed sea food platter

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After some tough negotation, Ryo got the fish restaurant to come up with some vegetarian options, which also turned out great.

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Sadly, this is what the fish market is really about.

A round of obligatory fish market photos later, we press on to Akasusa, an old neighborhood dominated by a famous temple, Senso-ji. Seems like it was a holiday as the temple was bursting at its seems, so we quickly drew fortunes (best, good and bad for one of each), tied them to a grid (to make the good fortunes last, or to leave the bad fortunes at the temple – you choose), joined worshippers at throwing some coins into a collection box over a crowd of heads, and ate a quick snack of blue chocolate covered banana.

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Blue chocolate banana

Energized by the sugar shock we were prepared for Akihabara, the famous former WWII black market for radio part that has over the last few decades evolved into the home of the true otaku & paradise for gadget lovers everywhere. Here, gaming arcades are extra large and packed, gadget shops deal with hardcore computer equipment, and entertainment options for young men and women abound.

One thing is called (bad translation I assume) “sticky photos”, and aimed squarely at young girls: The patrons get into a photo booth that from the outside is a nightmare in pink, but on the inside looks quite professional. After snapping a handful shots under immense time pressure, you go next door (next booth, really) and start an intense and largely automated photoshopping session. Classics include speech bubbles, hears and stars, as well as a number of more random youth culture artefacts like pink skulls, barcodes saying “happy birthday” or a smiley that says “nico”. The more advanced, and no doubt more popular options, include automatically increasing the size of eyes or smile, which produces truly creepy uncanny-valley style images. This floor was packed with young girls, while one floor up the boys were engaged in a very serious looking competition in a first person shooter, camera teams and audience included.

Akahibara is also home to the famous/infamous (you choose) maid cafés. A maid café, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is a café for mostly male geeks (female equivalents exist, if more rarely), in which the waitresses dress up as maids or in cosplay uniforms. It’s not as kinky as it might sound, although I’d be surprised if more adult versions didn’t also exist. As far as I can tell from the one we visited, things are pretty harmless, if truly bizarre. To give you a glimpse, let me give you a few examples of the things I saw at the café: Several maids who greet you with “welcome home!” Some guys dubbing a home produced anime video on the big screen. A maid painting, with ketchup, a manga character on a rice omelette. Maids putting “spells” on food & drinks, for happiness or flavor or love, by three times repeating a sing song spell, along with the patrons, while making a heart gesture. Yes, we joined in, too. And of course we took a worthy maid café photo, too, which is part of the whole spiel. I’m told there are a wide range of variations on that whole theme, like a younger sister café, where guys get the older brother treatment – less respect, but more personal social warmth. A stopover to be remembered, most certainly.

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Egg omelette, decorated with a character from a popular anime series

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I’m quite sure that taking photos with a tourist couple isn’t usually part of the spiel, but they didn’t mind at all.

A brief swing-by at Harajuku where thousands of teens were shopping like there is no tomorrow, and we slowly meander back towards Shibuya. On the way, we stop at two absolutely lovely stores: The MoMA Museum Store, which belongs to the New York MoMA. And Pass The Baton, where individual pieces are sold along with their stories so they would be remembered. So besides its regular wares, the store allows people to put some of their stuff on sale for one month, and every single one of these items has the story on the tag, and comments by the current owner. It’s really very charming.

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Pass the baton

We end the evening with shared dinner at a place I’d not be able to find anymore, but which was pretty big and hugely popular. The crowd had a laid back student style, and ranged from late teens to mid-thirties. Everybody would take seats at one of the maybe one dozen restaurants and start ordering drinks and food at that restaurant, or at any of the surrounding ones. You pool some cash into a little bowl, and whenever some new food is delivered, the waiter just takes out what you owe so you don’t have to break the flow. It’s a lovely, very social setting, and many rounds of food later we were knocked out and happy.

Japan Travel Log #3

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Day 7

Discovered quite lovely breakfast menus at our downstairs coffee shop, Rococo. Waffles, yogurt, drip coffee and salad make for a good start. The weather was lovely, so we rented bikes and did a few loops in and around the park in Nara. The park takes up a big chunk of the Eastern part of the city, and features some of the most impressive temples — and free roaming deer. Hundreds of deer, which are somewhat sacred and thus absolutely comfortable in the presence of people. Maybe a bit too much so.

Temple tour.
The deer are used to people, and are expecting to be fed crackers roasted for them in throughout the park.

Freshly roasted crackers are sold across the park, so you can feed them too, and yes, there’s a certain chance that they can smell the crackers in your pockets. Wandering in the woods and between the parks, Japan unfolds its particular magic, with mossy-green stone lanterns, red Shinto gates, and the free-roaming deer in between. Also, the biggest temple is quite that – one of the (maybe the?) biggest wooden structure in the world, housing a Buddha statue, and interestingly not even the size it once was, but a reconstruction built at 2/3 of the original size. Incredible, impressive.

Temple tour.
Daibutsu-den Hall

Yummy Okonomyaki for dinner, and by that time we decided to skip all our alternative plans for the next two or three nights and head straight back to Tokyo.

Day 8

Kicked off a gorgeous, sunny day with a run through the park, again among deer and shrines before jumping on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. Surprised, and somewhat disappointed, that not even in Bento boxes for an on-board lunch it’s easy to find a vegetarian meal for M. Given the ingredients, Japan could do better that way. That said, the food is still quite amazing. Wandered around Shinjuku and Shibuya, more steamed vegetables before heading to so-called Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley, a tiny alley next to Shinjuku station where maybe two dozen small food stalls and bars have specialized on Yakitori (meat skewers, grilled on charcoal grills), sake and beer.

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Entrance to Piss Alley

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Food stall at Piss Alley

Sitting on a cozy bench along with the other patrons in between dark, wooden, sooty walls, I watch the bar man alternating grilling my Yakitory sticks and pouring sake for business men in suits – always to the point where it overflows the glass and into a little dish, requiring the patrons to leave the glass on the counter and slurp off a bit before being able to lift the glass at all. It’s smelly, it’s slightly greasy, and it’s spectacularly yummy and atmospheric. We leave smelling of grill, and quite happy. In between the many overflowing stalls there are three that stand out a bit to me: One is completely empty; but it can’t be that bad, otherwise it would’ve gone out of business, right? One looks like a chain store of sorts. One is a tiny, tiny, tiny hipster bar. Maybe four seats? Heavy wood, what looks like a very decent collection of bottles behind the counter, slightly kitschy decoration, and a hat wearing hipster bar keeper. We’ll have to come here another day. Then, to top things off, I’m fulfilling a youth dream of mine and we head to a manga kissa, a manga & internet café where you rent a little cubicle for a few hours to read manga, surf the web, watch DVDs or play Playstation. It’s the ultimate Japanese youth experience to come here and hang out, and to sleep here if you miss the last train home to your suburb. Besides internet access and reading material, it also provides solutions for other essential needs, like coffee, chicken nuggets and soft ice cream.

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Bookshelves at a manga kissa at Shibuya

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Vending machine at the manga kissa

We spend the night here, not quite stretched out. In fact, despite the cubicle being quite spacious all things considered, I have to lie diagonally to even remotely stretch out my legs. Still, I wouldn’t miss it for anything and drift off to sleep.

Day 9

Somewhat tired and feeling crumpled, we move our stuff to a hotel and do a little planning and map syncinc (paper, since still without a data plan), then off to another gorgeous day. Super lucky with the weather. Imperial gardens, the posh shopping area of Ginza – quite underwhelming since it’s really just the usual suspect of global premium brands -, poking heads into the Muji flagship store and the Leica Ginza Salon. Back to Shibuya after a long day of walking for some shopping, a couple of small galleries (one was Parco Factory), dinner and drinks with Ryo, an old friend from university who I hadn’t seen in years, and who’s using his Friday night to hit town with his friends. We join them for part of the way – warmup drinks only, really – and crash in a slightly French-themed hotel. French-inspired being quite a common theme around here. Will have to dig deeper into that.

Day 10

It’s Saturday. Since our Airbnb doesn’t start for another day and all the hotels are booked out all around us (it’s a weekend, cherry blossom week and, I believe, start of the new school year or so), we have to move again. We serendipitously visit the farmers market in front of the UN University and stocking up on some bagels and a huge apple. All apples in Japan are huge, it seems:

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Japanese apples are big.

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Bear Pond Espresso, Shimo-Kitazawa

A quick detour to test out Bear Pond leads us to an absolutely lovely neighborhood called Shimokitazawa just a bit West of Shibuya, full of small local shops in between vintage stores and cafés, like this one:

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Noyo Future Café

It’s a project run, as far as I understand it, by a crew that runs three cafés and several small farms across Japan. Everything you eat is grown by them, they farm themselves. The project is called something Future, something in this case being a Japanese word that contains a pun I’m not sure I got right. I believe it means “agriculture” – no, or similar – sounding a bit like the words “no future” and “agriculture future”, or at least it is this spirit of believing in the importance of locally grown food that seems to be at the core of this. The English tag line of the line of t-shirts and overalls that come with the logo says “street peasant shop“:

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Noyo Future flyer

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Noyo Future flyer

If anyone here can explain the name any better, please let me know!

Update: (nou/noh) means agriculture or farming. Thanks, Tam!

Anyway, the food — vegetable curry, rice and yasmine tea for me, a selection of five different starters for Michelle — was excellent, and everyone super helpful and friendly. That discovery done, we headed over to the big park off Harajuku, known best for the famous Harajuku girls, who dress up in cosplay and pose for photos. We saw practically none of them; maybe this particular thing is over at last, or it was the thousands of visitors who were packed in the park to picnic under the cherry blossoms. It was after all an important day, and there weren’t exactly lines leading into the park, but a slow mass of people meandering into and out of the park. We seal the evening with a quick swing-by over at Roppongi, but the office & shopping towers are so corporate-sterile and over the top that we don’t stay long – but we’ll come back for an extensive tour of the Mori Art Museum and the view from a viewing platform up top. I was promised Blade Runneresque views, and there, at night, is where I’m expecting to get them in full.